The South Asia Channel

Capturing the Taliban’s second-in-command

Capturing the Taliban’s second-in-command

With Mullah Baradar’s arrest, the operational leader of the Taliban movement has been captured. Mullah Baradar — a nom-de-guerre; his real name is Abdul Ghani — had been appointed one of the two deputies of Mullah Muhammad Omar when the movement reorganized after its collapse in late 2001.

That made him the movement’s number 3. After the arrest of the other deputy, Mullah Obaidullah by the Pakistani ISI(1), he remained alone at the top of the Taliban’s second-highest authority, the Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura). Only Mullah Omar, as the amir ul-mo’menin, has a higher position. But being underground, only surfacing with indirectly distributed messages from time to time and otherwise, as the Taliban say, ‘giving strategic direction’ — whatever this concretely means — the role of Mullah Omar has possibly become rather unsubstantial in practice.

Although in the past there had been plenty of mix-ups with Afghan or Pakistani Taleban leaders reported killed or arrested, this time the probability that they got the right man seems to be high. The New York Times, the original source of the report, says Mullah Baradar had already been arrested almost a week ago and had learned about the operation on February 11, but had delayed reporting the fact on the request of the White House in order not to jeopardize the information gathering going on. This should have given the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence services involved sufficient time to identify him.

Also, the rather lame response of the Taliban might indicate that Mullah Baradar has indeed been snatched. Here, from Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid: "This is just rumor spread by foreigners to divert attention from the Marja offensive. They are facing big problems in Marja. In reality there is nothing regarding Baradar’s arrest. He is safe and free and he is in Afghanistan." This is nothing compared to the vitriolic scorn with which the Taliban had reacted to similar reports in previous cases.

Not too much is known about Mullah Baradar’s person. He was reportedly born around 1968 in the Dehrawud district of Uruzgan province and belongs to the Pashtun tribe of the Popalzai, as does Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He seems to have been rather a latecomer in the higher ranks of the Taliban movement. He is not mentioned in any of the lists in Ahmed Rashid’s reference book Taliban (2001). According to Newsweek, Mullah Baradar "served first as Mullah Omar’s right-hand man in Kandahar — his headquarters — then as his corps commander for western Afghanistan, and later as the Kabul garrison commander, where he directed the fight against mujahedin commanders in the north." Only in October 1999, he was appointed the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Taliban Emirate’s army, a position in the Defense Ministry. My archive does not confirm a position of Deputy Defense Minister (which is reported by some media but possibly confused with the post in the general staff).

During the Taliban’s final stand after 9/11 in 2001, Mullah Baradar was given the command over the Taliban troops in Northern Afghanistan, the ‘battle group’ that partly surrendered to Dostum’s troops in Mazar-e Sharif (and where subsequently massacred at Yangi Qala during an uprising there with CIA people reportedly) and partly in Kunduz, from where many Taliban commanders apparently were flown out by Pakistani planes (reported in Ahmed Rashid’s book Descent into Chaos). It is not clear whether Mullah Baradar was amongst them.

Finally, Mullah Baradar rose quickly in the ranks of the resurgent Taliban to become their number 3, behind Mullha Omar and Mullah Obaidullah who had been his supervisor in the IEA Defense Ministry. The Christian Science Monitor already reported him at the "top of the military command structure" of the Taliban in May 2003. (The best background article on Mullah Baradar in the media yet is Ron Moreau’s "America’s New Nightmare." An interview with Mullah Baradar done by Taliban media — in which he interestingly is called ‘Deputy Ameerul Mo’mineen of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,’ can be read here.)

One question is, nevertheless, whether this arrest will disrupt and weaken the Taliban’s ability to act in the long term. Without question, it is a serious blow to the Taliban. But on the other hand, neither the arrest of Obaidullah nor the killings of leading commanders like Mullah Dadullah, Akhtar Usmani and others have done so. The Taliban movement has been growing from year to year, not abruptly in 2005 or 2006 as many claim but rather continuously after their regime’s downfall. And it was apparently able to fill in vacant command posts with ease and without much loss of effectiveness.

Secondly, what are the implications for the much-discussed ‘talk with the Talibs’ an idea that has been further pushed to the forefront by President Karzai of late by his ‘Policy for National Reconciliation and Reintegration of Armed Opposition Groups’ presented at the London conference this January, including the peace jirga announced for April now? Will the arrest hamper or further such initiatives?

There cannot be a clear answer to this yet. Much depends on what the Pakistanis who, according to the NYT, have carried out the capture, hold Mullah Baradar in their custody and lead the interrogation, make out of it. In the past, the Pakistani position vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban has been ambiguous, to say the least. The U.S. has stepped up pressure on Pakistan since late last year again to support curbing the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. This has been accompanied by U.S. press reports that there still was substantial doubt about whether the Pakistani military, in the first place, cooperates in this matter.

By the way, the arrest also proves that Taliban leaders indeed use sanctuaries inside Pakistan, including Karachi. Although no one in his or her right mind had any doubts about this anymore, the Pakistani leadership has denied it time and again.

At the same time, the Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had recently suggested to NATO that it would be ready to open communication channels with the Taliban. This shows that Pakistan wants to get (or maintain) control of any Afghan reconciliation. For Pakistan, the Taliban still are a card to be kept in the sleeve to be played after the expected rather early departure of (most) Western troops from Afghanistan.

On one hand, so, Pakistan’s assistance in this case could be in line with reports that AAN (and others) have received over the past years, including cases immediately before the Afghan presidential elections of August 2009, that the ISI had pressured Taliban commanders to go to fight inside Afghanistan or otherwise be handed over to the U.S. to be sent to Guantanamo. Other reports indicated that Taliban commanders that had shown readiness to political accommodation and contacts had been arrested in and by Pakistan.

On the other hand, maybe Pakistan has now realized that it cannot fool the U.S. any longer. With Mullah Baradar in its custody, it even would have a trump card for any reconciliation initiative. It would not be the first time that the leader of an insurgent movement would broker a deal from within jail. Remember Nelson Mandela or Xanana Gusmao from Eastern Timor. (Not that I want to compare the Nobel Peace Price winner and Xanana with Mullah Baradar — I am ‘technically speaking’).

Let us also not forget that Kai Eide, the outgoing head of UNAMA in whose mandate it is to do outreach to the Taliban and who had argued in favor of contacting the Taliban leadership council (instead of doing nitty-gritty ‘reintegration’), had reportedly met Taliban commanders in Dubai believed to have been authorized by the ‘Quetta’ council, i.e. Mullah Baradar.  Here, the ‘Popalzai connection’ kicks in again: If Karzai was talking about ‘brothers’ on ‘the other side,’ he might have a very certain ‘brother’ in mind. According to the Newsweek article cited above, Mullah Baradar also had sanctioned ‘feelers’ stretched out towards the President’s brother and ex-MP Qayyum Karzai (who stepped down from his parliamentary mandate to concentrate on reconciliation issues).

Our colleague Bette Dam, a Dutch journalist who travelled and researched intensively in Uruzgan province and just published a book about it in Dutch (Expeditie Uruzgan, Arbeiderpers Amsterdam/Antwerp 2009), reports a very interesting story. When Hamid Karzai opened his small anti-Taliban front in Uruzgan in late 2001 and the Kandahar Taliban were about to catch him, it was Mullah Baradar with his fighters who came to rescue him. This definitely has created a memory that would not be forgotten.

(1) Mulla Obaidullah’s current status is, however, far from clear. He was reported arrested (or put under house arrest) in February/March 2007 and arrested in February 2008 again, then said to have been exchanged for the designated Pakistani ambassador to Kabul in May 2008 who had been abducted when travelling there on the Khyber route.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally posted. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.