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This Week at War: Baradar’s Game

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AFP PHOTO/ ASIF HASSAN
AFP PHOTO/ ASIF HASSAN

Could Mullah Baradar arrange a truce in Afghanistan?

On Feb. 15, the New York Times revealed that Pakistani and United States intelligence officers captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s second in command. According to the Times, the capture occurred in Karachi several days before the publication of its article. Both Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers were interrogating the Taliban leader.

What was Baradar doing in Karachi? The United States and Pakistan have greatly expanded the employment of drone missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The countryside might now be so dangerous that Taliban leaders such as Baradar might now be forced to take their chances in cities, away from the drones’ hunting grounds. But avoiding detection in the cities is even more challenging. If the drones are eliminating the countryside as a safe haven, the survival options for Taliban leaders may now be running out.

Could Baradar’s capture have actually be a defection? Seeing his life expectancy running short, he might have opted for the safety of capture. Another twist on this scenario is the possibility of a rift inside the Afghan Taliban’s leadership; Baradar may have defected to avoid assassination at the hands of his comrades.

Much of the commentary on Baradar’s capture has focused on the role of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI has been the Afghan Taliban’s sponsor and protector in the past. Yet now the ISI is publicly involved in Baradar’s capture (or defection). Does Baradar possess some long-term value to the Pakistani government?

A follow-up story in the New York Times revealed that prior to his capture, Afghan and U.S. officials had indirect contact with Baradar and had negotiated with him, presumably about reconciliation. According to the piece, the Pakistani government was not a party to these talks.

In the long run, U.S. and Pakistani interests regarding Afghanistan diverge. Pakistan maintains a permanent interest in the greater Pashtun region, and a weak Afghan government in Kabul is to their advantage. The United States seeks a strong government in Kabul. Even more important to Pakistan: In the long run the United States will inevitably tilt toward India.

But in the shorter run, there may be some convergance. Similar to the forthcoming U.S. exit from Iraq, the Obama team is hoping for a political settlement in Afghanistan that leads to a relative calm, at least long enough to allow most of the U.S. military forces in the country to gracefully exit. For its part, Pakistan might also prefer a truce. Pakistani leaders may worry that an escalating ground war in Afghanistan and a drone campaign on Pakistan’s frontier could eventually obliterate the Afghan Taliban’s command structure, crippling Pakistan’s influence inside Afghanistan. By this reasoning, both the United States and Pakistan would have an interest in a truce occurring sometime soon.

Might Baradar be the man in the best position to bring about such a truce? If he was able to convince most of his comrades to cease fire, Pakistan is in a position to reward him. U.S. officials would hardly frown on such a settlement, as long as it lasted long enough for Washington’s purposes. The biggest loser might be Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But few in the White House seem concerned for his feelings these days.

What will get Iran to change course?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Saudi Arabia on Feb. 15 to talk Iran with Saudi leaders. Her message to the public in the region was that Iran was turning into a "military dictatorship." Clinton asserted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was assuming ever greater control over Iran’s economy, military, and politics.

Clinton is hoping that her message — which she stated to reporters on three separate occasions – will induce Arab states around the Persian Gulf to rally against Iran. U.S. officials have long sought greater defense cooperation among the Arab states. These officials have dreamed of a strong Arab defense alliance balancing Iranian power and thus providing a stable end-state for the region.

Alas, suspicions among the Arab states run almost as deep as suspicions about Iran’s intentions. And if Clinton was calling for greater Arab energy, cooperation, and self-help regarding Iran, she muddled her message with this reasoning:

Iran’s neighbors, she said, have three options. "They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is willing to help defend them," she said. "I think the third is by far the preferable option."

If Clinton’s preference is for the United States to be the principal military defender of the Arab states, those states won’t have much incentive to either get energized about the problem or overcome their suspicions and cooperate with each other.

On Feb. 8, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met in Paris with French leaders to discuss the Iran problem. At the press conference, Gates concluded, "[W]e have to face the reality that if Iran continues and develops nuclear weapons, it almost certainly will provoke nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This is a huge danger.  The key is persuading the Iranian leaders that their long-term best interests are best served by not having nuclear weapons, as opposed to having them."

Gates seems to be saying that the threat of a regional arms race aimed at Iran might do a better job of changing minds in Tehran than any measures taken thus far. Iran’s leaders discount this possibility because they know that nonproliferation is a very important U.S. policy goal. Clinton’s analysis of the available options quoted above also seems to discard an arms race as a policy alternative.

But what if, by Gates’s logic, it is the only policy that might change Iranian behavior? Credibly threatening Iran with an arms race might be the only way to avert such a race; nothing else tried so far has worked.

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