The New York Times today reports the capture of the Taliban’s ‘top military commander’ Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a secret joint operation in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. American officials are describing Mullah Baradar as ‘the most significant Taliban figure to be captured since the American-led war in Afghanistan started’ in October 2001. He is also variously described as second only to the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar in terms of influence, and a ‘close associate of Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks’. What does ‘a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks’ mean? What about the last eight years? And what was he doing in southern Pakistan when Taliban hideouts are in the country’s Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces?
Huffington Post said he was known to coordinate Taliban military operations throughout the south and southwest of Afghanistan. This again reinforces the question as to what exactly was he doing a thousand or more miles away in the Pakistani port city of Karachi?
These questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the descriptions of Mullah Baradar’s significance by American officials certainly help the Obama administration to portray the capture as a huge achievement, soon after the killings of 12 Afghan civilians early in Operation Moshtarak around Marjah in Helmand province and the deaths of 5 other Afghan civilians in Kandahar in an unrelated incident.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund, is thought to be 42 years old and comes from Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, just north of the Taliban stronghold Kandahar, and not far from the capital Kabul. Uruzgan and four neighboring southern provinces – Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz – have proved extremely challenging for the American-led international forces since October 2001, as they did for the Soviet occupation forces and the Afghan national army under the Communist regime in the 1980s. These provinces represent the bulk of Pashtun resistance to whoever is in power in Kabul.
Interpol describes Mullah Baradar’s title as deputy defense minister in the Taliban regime that was overthrown in late 2001. This does not make him as the top figure, second only to Mullah Omar, in the Taliban hierarchy. More interesting is the fact that Mullah Baradar belongs to the Popalzai tribe, also President Hamid Karzai’s tribe.
It is also worth noting that Mullah Baradar and the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar do not belong to the same Pashtun tribe. Mullah Omar is from the Hotak tribe, part of the larger Ghilzai branch. The Hotak dynasty ruled the Persian Empire in the early eighteenth century.
The status of Mullah Baradar as second only to Mullah Omar must be seen above all against the fact that the two belong to different tribes, in a society where tribal affiliations are of great significance. However, according to the Interpol, Baradar was a member of the Taliban Quetta Council and was believed to be living in Baluchistan as of May 2007. His reported capture in Karachi, capital of the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, raises questions about reasons behind his movements. Was he there to direct insurgency operations in Karachi and other areas of Sindh when the main theater is Afghanistan and the north-west frontier of Pakistan? A curious scenario. Or was he lured to Karachi by the Pakistani military intelligence service, ISI? In which case, how would his capture affect relations with the rest of the Afghan Taliban?
Officials in Washington said that Pakistan was leading the interrogation of Mullah Baradar, but Americans were also involved. The New York Times speculates that the ISI’s participation with the CIA in the operation to capture Mullah Baradar could suggest ‘a new level of cooperation from Pakistan’s leaders’. Who are those leaders? Civilian? military? From which sections of the military?
Soon after taking office in January 2009, President Obama outlawed harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding used by Americans under the Bush administration. Such limitations may not apply to the Pakistanis, who are known for employing brutal measures against prisoners. But in that case, the Obama administration would not be able to escape accusations of complicity in torture. And any evidence extracted by the use of harsh techniques would face legal challenges in courts should a trial of Mullah Baradar be held.
DEEPAK TRIPATHI is the author of two forthcoming books – Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac, 2010). His works can be found on http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: DandATripathi@gmail.com.