The South Asia Channel

A word of caution about Mullah Baradar’s capture

A word of caution about Mullah Baradar’s capture

Yesterday the New York Times broke the story of the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the operational leader of the Afghan Taliban and the highest-ranking insurgent figure captured since the war began in 2001. Baradar’s capture, which the BBC reports happened approximately a week ago, took place in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in a joint operation between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Although few details about his condition or his cooperativeness are available, Baradar is now said to be under joint questioning in Pakistani custody.

While other top Taliban leaders have been killed or captured in the past, Baradar is second only to Mullah Mohammad Omar within the organization. Baradar’s capture is dramatic not only for his high rank but also for the apparent reversal Pakistani military establishment’s previous laissez-faire attitude to the well-established presence of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership on its soil and its refusal, despite American pressure, to go after another key element of the Afghan insurgency with links to the ISI, the network of veteran mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Administration officials suggested to the Times that the capture took place due to a decision by the Pakistani military establishment to shift away from past support for the Taliban. Determining the exact motivation for the move is difficult; the arrest closely follows last month’s international conference in London on Afghanistan and coincides with the announcement of new foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan, supported by the United States, but the intricacies of behind-the-scenes U.S. diplomatic maneuvers between Pakistan and its neighbors may not become clear for some time. Pakistan’s stream of detainees since 2001 linked to al Qaeda and other militant groups has been steady but selective, and its record of successfully holding and prosecuting terror suspects is poor. We should be cautious about extrapolating too much from the detention of a single commander, even one as senior as Baradar.

Baradar’s operational role within the Taliban insurgency is a major one, however, and it is important to consider what the impact of his detention might be. Newsweek’s definitive profile on the man suggests it will be a significant one, as Baradar, who has served at founder Mullah Omar’s side since the Taliban’s inception, is responsible for setting the group’s military and political strategy as well as controlling the disbursement of funds to theater commanders. The leadership shura-in-exile’s success has been remarkably successful at controlling its forces in the field, as documented in Antonio Giustozzi’s book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop. Mullah Baradar’s role — channeling donations from the Persian Gulf and other sources which appear to exceed the trade and drug tax revenues that can be generated by local commanders, establishing codes of conduct and media strategies that establish political and behavioral parameters for membership in the group, and directing the promotion, rotation, or removal of commanders across the country — lies at the nexus of these command-and-control efforts.

Filling Baradar’s operational role will place great stress on the Afghan Taliban, and a pronounced break in leadership continuity in these areas has the potential to result in a greater decentralization of the insurgency if his eventual replacement cannot match his authority to keep finances flowing and local commanders in line. While international leaders might celebrate the resulting degradation in the Afghan Taliban’s overall capacity for coordinated violence, a fragmented insurgency could make overall reconciliation efforts more challenging, as local commanders compete for resources and profile to preserve their positions of power and the Afghan state is forced to confront or co-opt a multitude of actors rather than a single principal opponent. If reports that Baradar was open to the idea of reconciliation talks with the Karzai government and his representatives met with outgoing U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide earlier this year are true, then the chance for a "grand bargain" with the Taliban leadership would appear to be diminished.

While Mullah Baradar’s capture may dynamically impact the shape of the current conflict in Afghanistan, the potential resilience of insurgent commanders able to out-organize the Afghan state at the local level means that celebrations should be tempered by an understanding that one man’s removal may rebound in unpredictable ways.

Colin Cookman is a special assistant for national security at the Center for American Progress.