FP Explainer

How Does the United States Rank Leaders of the Taliban?

It doesn't.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Today, Foreign Policy debuts a new Web column: The FP Explainer. Just like our sister site Slate, we’ll do the legwork to answer your best questions about the undercovered and underexplained facets of the week’s news. To submit a question, email annie.lowrey@foreignpolicy.com with "FP Explainer" in the subject line.

Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins of the New York Times broke the sensational story Monday that the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, describing the Taliban commander as "second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar." A Taliban official repeated the assessment, saying "The only man more powerful than Baradar is Omar." Since then, American and international media outlets — including Fox News, Time, Bloomberg News, and the Associated Press — have declared Baradar as Mullah Omar’s No. 2, frequently citing "U.S. officials" as their source.

The United States famously published its "most wanted" members of Saddam Hussein’s government after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with the deposed leader the ace of spades, the head of the fearsome Republican Guard the queen of hearts, and so on. So how does the U.S. government rank leaders of the Taliban? 

In short: It doesn’t. To be sure, the government loves lists, and Baradar’s Taliban colleagues appear on many of them. The FBI maintains its ranking of most-wanted terrorists, which helps it publicize the baddies it most wants to catch and believes the public might help it find. But the FBI list only features indicted criminals, meaning it is stocked with alleged al Qaeda members whom the Justice Department wants to try for terrorism. The National Counterterrorism Center keeps a public list of terrorists and insurgents, offering cash rewards up to $25 million for information leading to arrests. But it offers no order of importance, and Mullah Omar is the only Taliban member on it.

Otherwise, the U.S. government does not publicly rank Taliban commanders on some sort of most-wanted or most-important list. Prior to his arrest by the ISI, Baradar — a paramount Taliban figure but an inside player, mostly unknown to the U.S. public — barely featured on U.S. government public websites or lists at all. 

Still, it was common knowledge among experts inside and outside government that Baradar came second in the Taliban hierarchy, behind only Mullah Omar — the enigmatic one-eyed "leader of the faithful." The two have been close since fighting side by side against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Baradar is married to Omar’s sister. But Omar has gone into hiding. Since 2007, Baradar has controlled the Taliban’s multimillion-dollar budget of drug money, kickbacks, and donations; masterminded its insurgency operations and commanded its army; and headed its shura, or leadership council, from Quetta. These activities earned him the interest of the Pakistani ISI, the CIA, and Centcom — list or no list.

Of course, U.S. agencies for years have kept thick dossiers on Taliban leaders, schematics of the group’s leadership structure, and detailed reports on probable lines of succession. Baradar might have featured on the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s classified list of its 20 highest value targets, many of whom have died in drone strikes in the past year. And the U.N. Security Council keeps a "Consolidated List" of sanctioned members of the Taliban, on which Baradar appears.

Thanks to Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution and U.S. Centcom and counterterrorism officials.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.