Mullah Baradar’s capture: caution, prudence, speculation

As further details emerge about the capture of the Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi, many of the questions raised in my yesterday’s posting remain unresolved. They concern relations between senior Taliban leaders, the real significance of Baradar and whether his capture is a precursor to more substantive talks between the United States and some in the Taliban movement.

Maleeha Lodhi, one-time Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington who was close to the late Benazir Bhutto, warns against over-optimistic conclusions surfacing in Washington and western media outlets. She says, “One should be cautious in assessing its [capture’s] net impact.”

Apart from Dawn, most Pakistani news media were muted in their analyses of the seizure of Mullah Baradar. But the Peshawar newspaper, The Frontier post, carried a hard-hitting editorial on the US-led Marjah operation underway in Afghanistan. It is very sharp in its condemnation of embedded journalism, uncritical reporting and analyses in the western media. The Post, published from Peshawar and Quetta, has a long history of authoritative coverage of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. An excerpt from the editorial:

“If Taliban’s claims can be taken with a pinch of salt, the predominantly western media’s reporting on the US-led occupation coalition forces in Afghanistan cannot be taken as gospel truth either. Most of this reporting is embedded journalism that conceals more than it reveals. And since this reporting is the main window to the outside world to know of the occupied country, the international community stands fed less on objective information and more on motivated disinformation on post-Taliban Afghanistan. This goes for the Marja offensive launched jointly by the US and the NATO forces together with the Afghan National Army.” 

I am skeptical about any conclusions indicating that the latest developments mean President Asif Ali Zardari’s People’s Party is driving Pakistan’s Afghan policy and that cooperation between his leadership and the US administration has reached ‘a new level’. Pakistan remains a country of several power centers, including the civilian administration, the military and, quite distinctly, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, ISI, which has driven Afghan policy for many years.

Why would the ISI agree to the capture of Mullah Baradar? Here is a speculative explanation that would seem to go along with the past history, as well as make sense in the current scenario.

In 1994, Pakistan’s civilian prime minister Benazir Bhutto decided to assume control of Afghan policy, thus reducing the ISI’s role. Through her interior minister General (rtd) Nasirullah Babar, Bhutto started backing an emerging group calling themselves the Taliban. During her prime ministership, Pakistan eventually switched support from the Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISI favorite, to the Taliban movement.

It was a shocking development for the ISI, which went through a period of intense internal debate. Finally, the ISI decided that the only way to maintain its say in Pakistan’s Afghan policy was to switch support to the Taliban, abandoning Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. The Taliban were portrayed as the only agency that could bring order in Afghanistan. We know very well how things went from there on. 

The ISI and Pakistan’s military establishment in general face a new crisis today. Washington’s growing ties with India, for economic and trade reasons and not least because India is a potential counter to China, is a worry for Pakistan’s military-political establishement. If the ISI did approve the decision to seize Mullah Baradar, and it would be difficult to imagine it happening without, then the ISI and military concluded this to be the best course of action to keep the Obama administration happy.

Mullah Baradar’s arrest has clearly delighted the United States, which would remain interested in Pakistan and, more importantly, the military-political establishment. And it would prevent India using Washington to isolate Pakistan. Mullah Baradar was probably falling out with other members of the Afghan Taliban leadership. He could be sacrificed.

Recent events have certainly served to make many in Washington and some in Islamabad (privately) happy. What will happen in the medium and long run is difficult to predict. President Karzai of Afghanistan is seen as close to India and not entirely in tune with the Pakistani military-political elite. In the long run, a reduced role in Afghanistan would not be acceptable to Pakistan’s military-political establishment, nor would it like a greater role for India in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s military continues to want a significant say in Afghan politics. It is possible only if the military has a powerful Pashtun ally in southern and eastern Afghanistan, short of a friendly regime in Kabul. The Obama administration should not start counting its eggs yet.

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