The New York Times today reports the capture of the Taliban’s ’top military commander’ Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a secret joint operation in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. American officials are describing Mullah Baradar as ‘the most significant Taliban figure to be captured since the American-led war in Afghanistan started’ in October 2001. He is also variously described as second only to the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar in terms of influence, and a ‘close associate of Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks’. What does ‘a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks’ mean? What about in the last eight years? And what was he doing in southern Pakistan when Taliban hideouts are in country’s Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces?
Huffington Post said he was known to coordinate Taliban military operations throughout the south and southwest of Afghanistan. This again reinforces the question as to what exactly was he doing a thousand or more miles away in the Pakistani port city of Karachi?
Such questions remain. Nevertheless, the descriptions of Mullah Baradar’s significance by American officials certainly help the Obama administration to portray the capture as a huge achievement, soon after the killings of 12 Afghan civilians early in Operation Moshtarak around Marjah in Helmand province and of 5 other Afghan civilians in Kandahar in an unrelated incident.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund, is thought to be 42 years old and comes from Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, just north of the Taliban stronghold in Kandahar, and not far from the capital Kabul. Uruzgan and four neighboring southern provinces – Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz - have proved extremely challenging for the American-led international forces since October 2001, as they did for the Soviet occupation forces and the Afghan national army under the Communist regime in the 1980s. They represent the bulk of Pashtun resistance to whoever is in power in Kabul.
Interpol describes Mullah Baradar’s title as deputy defense minister in the Taliban regime that was overthrown in late 2001. This does not make him as the top figure, second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban hierarchy. More interesting is the fact that Mullah Baradar belongs to the Popalzai tribe, also President Hamid Karzai’s tribe.
It is also worth noting that Mullah Baradar and the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar do not belong to the same Pashtun tribe. Mullah Omar is from the Hotak tribe, part of the larger Ghilzai branch. The Hotak dynasty ruled the Persian Empire in the eighteenth century.
The status of Mullah Baradar as second only to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar must therefore be seen against the fact that the two belong to different tribes, in a society where tribal affiliations are of great significance. However, according to Interpol, Baradar was a member of the Taliban Quetta Council and was believed to be living in Baluchistan as of May 2007. His reported capture in Karachi, capital of the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, raises questions about reasons for his movements. Was he there to direct insurgency operations in Karachi and other areas of Sindh when the main theater is Afghanistan and the north-west frontier of Pakistan? A curious scenario. Or was he lured to Karachi by the Pakistani military intelligence service, ISI? In which case, how would his capture affect relations with the rest of the Afghan Taliban?
Al Jazeera says Mullah Baradar may have had a falling out with the Taliban leadership. He may have become a liability because he was taking part in negotiations with the Afghan government and the United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide. The Taliban deny any such meetings took place.
Officials in Washington said that Pakistan was leading the interrogation of Mullah Baradar, but Americans were also involved. The New York Times speculates that the ISI’s participation with the CIA in the operation to capture Mullah Baradar could suggest ‘a new level of cooperation from Pakistan’s leaders’. Who are those leaders? Civilian? military? From which sections of the military?
Soon after taking office in January 2009, President Obama outlawed harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding used by Americans under the Bush administration. Such limitations may not apply to the Pakistanis, who are known for employing brutal interrogation techniques. But in that case, the Obama administration would not be able to escape accusations of complicity in torture. And any evidence extracted by the use of harsh techniques would face legal challenges in courts should a trial of Baradar be held.