Pakistan Plays Ball
The U.S. intelligence community has long viewed Pakistan's military with suspicion, due to its ties to the Afghan Taliban. Following the arrest of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's second in command, that may finally change.
Since Oct. 7, 2001, when the first U.S. B-52 bombers began bombarding Taliban installations around Kabul, the United States and its allies have been waiting for Pakistan to demonstrate its sincerity in the war being fought on Afghan soil. The arrest of nine Taliban militants in the Pakistani city of Karachi, including the Afghan Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, may indicate a fundamental shift in Pakistan’s relations with the NATO states fighting in Afghanistan.
Despite former President Pervez Musharraf’s repeated public commitment to the war on terror, the U.S. intelligence community has remained wary of its Pakistani interlocutors — the military and the mighty Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s main spy agency — because of their longstanding complicity with Afghanistan’s Taliban factions. Its suspicions kept falling on the ISI for allegedly protecting Afghan Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the eldest son of veteran jihadist leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The arrest of Baradar, known as the Taliban’s master strategist, might put an end to these rumors. This success was followed by a deluge of arrests of other Taliban and jihadi leaders, likely on evidence provided by Baradar. These include Ameer Muawiya, an associate of Osama bin Laden responsible for foreign al Qaeda militants in Pakistan’s border areas, and Akhunzada Popalzai, also known as Mohammad Younis, a former Taliban shadow governor in Afghanistan’s southern Zabul province and ex-police chief of Kabul. Earlier this week, the Pakistani police also picked up Maulvi Kabir, a former governor of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, from a town about 20 kilometers east of Peshawar.
Pakistan also captured a number of other significant figures in the raid that netted it Baradar. Others captured in Karachi include Hamza, a former Afghan army commander in Helmand province during Taliban rule; Abu Riyad al-Zarqawi, a liaison with Chechen and Tajik militants in Pakistan’s border area; and Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mohammad, former shadow governors for Kunduz province and Baghlan province, respectively.
The arrest of over a dozen key Taliban commanders amounts to a serious blow to the insurgency in Afghanistan. Intriguingly, while Pakistani officials claim Baradar was captured in Karachi, some sources insist the arrest took place several days earlier in Baluchistan, the Pakistani southwestern province along the border with Afghanistan. But regardless of where Baradar was picked up, the utility of the intelligence gained from his capture and the motives of Pakistan in going after the Afghan Taliban, this development is significant in many ways.
First, Baradar has become the latest in a long string of Taliban stalwarts captured by Pakistani and U.S. authorities. The ISI, possibly working in conjunction with the CIA, was responsible for the killing of key Taliban commanders Mullah Dadullah and Akhtar Mohammad Osmani in 2006. The 2007 arrest of Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taliban defense minister and Baradar’s predecessor, was also apparently the result of a joint operation — not so different from the arrest, in 2003, of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. The expanding list of Pakistani successes underscores the ever-increasing army-to-army cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries.
Intelligence officials in Islamabad also point to the Feb. 17 drone strike in North Waziristan as further evidence of growing intelligence cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. The attack killed Muhammad Haqqani, the 30-year-old son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is leading the Haqqani network in the area. U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of protecting the Haqqanis, and this strike could be proof that the two allies are increasingly on the same page on this issue.
Perhaps the most important reason for the improved ties between these two allies is the personal rapport that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen and Centcom chief Gen. David Petraeus have cultivated with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and the head of the ISI, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
Since assuming his position as Army Chief from Musharraf in November 2007, Kayani has quietly endeavored to distance himself from his predecessor, relieving Musharraf’s allies of sensitive duties and charting a new course in the Army’s relationship with the United States. He has increasingly provided U.S. military commanders with operational details and critical information concerning regional developments.
In return, Kayani has attempted to convince his American counterparts that a truly effective partnership must be built on mutual trust. "I have been telling Mullen and Petraeus, as well as others in NATO, that if you keep suspecting and insinuating against us publicly, we will find it difficult to motivate our rank and file," Kayani stated on Feb. 3. With doubts and allegations, our room for maneuvering also shrinks, he maintained.
Kayani conveyed the same message privately to Mullen and Petraeus when they met at the Pakistani Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad, in mid-December last year. Kayani tried to explain the intricacies of Army operations in the Waziristan region, telling his guests that Pakistan’s Army would determine the scale and timing of any future military campaign into North Waziristan. He reportedly assured them of full cooperation — but "only if we are viewed with trust and not suspicion."
If Mullen and Petraeus’s statements since December are any indicator, they seem to have a sympathetic ear for Kayani’s concerns. Mullen had nothing but praise for the Pakistan Army’s assault on the Taliban in the Swat Valley in the summer of 2009, and he repeatedly declined to publicly pressure Kayani to launch an operation in North Waziristan following Pakistan’s campaign in South Waziristan in October 2009.
The final factor that likely played a role in Pakistan’s increased cooperation with U.S. efforts was the London conference on Afghanistan in January, where NATO officials dropped the first strong hints that they were moving forward with a policy of reconciliation and dialogue with elements of the Taliban. Islamabad may have recalibrated its policy in order to gain a place at the negotiating table whenever talks open with the Afghan Taliban.
Whatever the reasons for Pakistan’s role in Baradar’s capture, it could be rewarded not only with increased political leverage, but with an injection of financial support. The United States is likely to release at least part of the $1.3 billion in Coalition Support Funds owed to Pakistan, which have been held up by accounting objections and a dispute over Pakistan’s refusal to grant visas to certain American security officials. Since 2001, Pakistan has received more than $12 billion in U.S. aid; last October, Barack Obama’s administration agreed to a further $7.5 billion aid package, to be distributed over five years.
This massive infusion of American dollars begs the question: Are President Obama’s incentives to Pakistan bearing fruit, and can they be translated into successful negotiations with the Taliban? There are a number of cautionary tales in attempting to use Baradar to bring the Taliban rank and file over in support of a negotiated settlement. This has been attempted previously with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan before 9/11, and Mullah Mutawakkil, the Taliban foreign minister — with little positive effect on the reconciliation process. If Baradar is thought to have switched sides due to U.S. or Pakistani coercion, he too might become irrelevant.
Although increased U.S.-Pakistani cooperation can only bode well for the NATO war effort in Afghanistan, both sides should not expect Baradar’s arrest, in of itself, to lead to a dramatic shift on the battlefield. In previous years, the Taliban insurgency has survived the loss of Mullah Dadullah, Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, and Mullah Obaidullah — proving that the movement is more resilient than any one leader. Mullah Baradar’s loss could possibly dent the insurgency — but as long as Mullah Omar remains the supreme commander and the spiritual mentor to the insurgents, we should not expect the Taliban to disappear overnight.