U.S. – Pakistan Capture Taliban Commander

Pakistan Honor Guard

The apparent capture of Afghan Taliban military commander Abdul Ghani Baradar is not only great news in NATO’s war against the militants but potentially a very strong signal of improved cooperation between Pakistan and the United States.

Mark Mazzeti and Dexter Filkins broke the news this morning in the NYT.

The Taliban’s top military commander was captured several days ago in Karachi, Pakistan, in a secret joint operation by Pakistani and American intelligence forces, according to American government officials.  The commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is an Afghan described by American officials as the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the American-led war in Afghanistan started more than eight years ago. He ranks second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder and a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mullah Baradar has been in Pakistani custody for several days, with American and Pakistani intelligence officials both taking part in interrogations, according to the officials. It was unclear whether he was talking, but the officials said his capture had provided a window into the Taliban and could lead to other senior officials. Most immediately, they hope he will provide the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who is the group’s spiritual leader.

Disclosure of Mullah Baradar’s capture came as American and Afghan forces were in the midst of a major offensive in southern Afghanistan.

His capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations, at least in the short term, said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who last spring led the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review.

Details of the raid remain murky, but officials said that it had been carried out by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and that C.I.A. operatives had accompanied the Pakistanis.

Officially, at least, Pakistan has been quick to dismiss these reports.  Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced, "We are a sovereign state and hence will not allow anybody to come and do any operation.  And we will not allow that. So this (report) is propaganda."  Time reporters Tim McGirk and Omar Waraich pronounce this "a prudent stance for the Pakistani government to take, what with anti-Americanism running high after recent U.S. drone-missile strikes in the tribal areas." Still, they continue, "a few Pakistani intelligence officials, who refuse to be quoted or named, admit that Baradar has been captured, a staggering blow to the Taliban leadership at a time when its stronghold of Marjah, in southern Afghanistan, is besieged by a U.S.-led ground and air assault.  But U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, were under no such constraints and continued to not only tout the joint operation but to claim that "Baradar was offering vital information on Taliban and al Qaeda."

Guardian‘s Jason Burke pronounces the capture "undoubtedly a major coup" and judges it "likely to be of significantly more influence on the evolution of the war in Afghanistan than any number of military operations such as that currently underway in Helmand." Indeed, he contends Baradar not only "managed the day-to-day business of the insurgency" but proclaimed that he was "hands on" and a micromanager. Alas, the news is not all good:
ritically however Baradar has shown himself to be among the more moderate of the Taliban leaders – or at least among the less extreme. Baradar is a key figure in what Afghans know as the "old Taliban" – the Taliban of the 1990s – to distinguish them from the younger, more violent "new Taliban" who emerged post 2001 and are ideologically much closer to militant jihadists from groups like al-Qaida.

In removing Baradar, the west may have inadvertently moved the Taliban in a more extreme direction by strengthening the latter.

This may eventually work to the west’s advantage as the new Taliban are far less interested in bringing security to the civilian population bur are keen on introducing their harsh brand of Islamic justice, setting up an effective parallel government and subscribing to the globalised al-Qaida style ideology that has become so widespread in recent years, and killing unbelievers. This may undermine the Taliban’s popular support in key areas, such as Helmand and Kandahar or in the provinces around Kabul and thus make the coalition’s task that much easier.

On the other hand,

If, as seems possible, the capture of Baradar does signal a major change in the attitude of the Pakistani security establishment and a long overdue recognition that harbouring the Taliban – or elements within the Taliban – is not in the best interests of their nation, then it clearly marks a much broader shift of immense strategic importance.

However, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions. Since the first major cities started falling to western and opposition Afghan forces in November 2001, the Pakistanis have been fundamentally committed to rolling back what they see as undue western and Indian influence in Afghanistan by any means possible, and to ensuring they are well-positioned for an eventual departure of western forces. Both those goals remain unchanged.

Even vocal skeptics of the NATO operation in Afghanistan agree that this is a huge development.  Independent journalist Joshua Foust proclaims this "could be game-changing" and "a big deal."  American Security Project fellow and Atlantic Council contributing editor Bernard Finel acknowledges that "this is a big story."

Notably, Finel had "been concerned that the Pakistanis were willing to fight the Pakistani Taliban, but not the Afghan Taliban.  This addresses that concern."  Indeed, Ben Arnoldy and Issam Ahmed note for CSM, "In the past, Pakistan has rarely targeted Afghan Taliban leaders operating within its borders. Instead, Islamabad has focused on shutting down the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a faction that is at war with the Pakistani government." They continue,

But US-Pakistan relations have improved of late, with Pakistan feeding intelligence to the US drone assassination program operating inside the country and the US helping Pakistan kill its enemies in return.

A US drone strike in August smote Pakistan’s chief enemy, former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud. The arrest of Baradar appears to be reciprocal — a sort of reward to the US for its help in killing Mr. Mehsud. "There is more intelligence sharing now than at any point in time in the last seven or eight years," says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the department of defense and strategic studies at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "After Baitullah Mehsud’s killing it became quite clear that the Americans were willing to hit the TTP targets. Now the expectation was that the Afghan Taliban would be next."


[W]hat’s new is who’s being targeted, not the fact of CIA involvement on Pakistani soil. Analysts in Pakistan say the Afghanistan Taliban have been put on notice that they will no longer enjoy relative freedom for their operatives inside Pakistan so long as they keep their guns focused on Afghanistan.

Danger Room‘s Nathan Hodge agrees,

Of course, Pakistani sovereignty is always a sensitive issue. But as Bill Roggio of Long War Journal notes, Baradar’s arrest also presents something of a conundrum for the the Pakistani government. “Numerous Pakistani government, military, and intelligence officials have repeatedly denied the existence of the Quetta Shura and have disputed claims that it had moved to Karachi,” he writes. “But Baradar’s arrest in Karachi would provide the strongest evidence that the Quetta Shura is now in the Pakistani port city.”

Perhaps the most important question here is the role Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency. The ISI has long been suspected of playing a double game, allowing the Afghanistan Taliban to maintain a haven in Pakistan, in order to maintain influence in Afghanistan and to serve as a strategic counterweight to India.

Writing from Kabul, Ben Farmer of the U.K. Daily Telegraph suggests that the joint action by U.S. and Pakistani may point to “the changing position of Pakistan’s powerful ISI military intelligence service” vis-à-vis the Taliban.  “If the arrest of Mullah Baradar heralds a change in the ISI position towards its former protégés rather than being a one off, it will be a landmark event in the counter insurgency,” he writes. “It follows the ISI’s declaration earlier this month that it wished to play a significant role in Hamid Karzai’s attempts to reconcile with senior insurgent leaders.”

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit:  U.S. Defense Department.

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