Contrary to initial U.S. suggestions that it signals reduced Pakistani support for the Taliban, the detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the operational leader of the Afghan Taliban, represents a shift by Pakistan to more open support for the Taliban in preparation for a peace settlement and U.S. withdrawal.
Statements by Pakistani officials to journalists prior to the arrest indicate that the decision to put Baradar in custody is aimed at ensuring that the Taliban role in peace negotiations serves Pakistani interests. They also suggest that Pakistani military leaders view Baradar as an asset in those negotiations rather than an adversary to be removed from the conflict.
Pakistan has long viewed the military and political power of the Taliban as Pakistan’s primary strategic asset in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan, which remains its main concern in the conflict.
The New York Times report that broke the story of Baradar’s arrest Tuesday cited claims by unnamed U.S. officials that the Pakistanis “may finally have begun to distance themselves from the Taliban”. But a Times story from Islamabad the following day revealed that the U.S. spin on the arrest had been highly misleading.
Wednesday’s story quoted a senior Pakistani intelligence official as saying in an interview three weeks earlier that the United States had tried to prevent Pakistan from negotiating directly with the Taliban, even as the U.S. and Afghan government were approaching the insurgent leadership about peace talks.
“You cannot say that we are important allies and then you are negotiating with people whom we are hunting and you don’t include us,” said the official.
The story quoted the official as saying, “We are after Mullah Baradar. We strongly believe that the Americans are in touch with him, or people who are close to him.”
That was a clear hint that Pakistan viewed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s interest in capturing Baradar as being related to U.S. influence on peace negotiations.
Despite ostensibly close cooperation between the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] Directorate, against Islamic militants in Pakistan, ISI officials are deeply distrustful of the CIA, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid observed in an article in The New York Review of Books published this month.
Rashid wrote that the Pakistanis had insisted to the United States that all peace negotiations in Afghanistan should be channeled through ISI. The Pakistanis also wanted all contacts with the Taliban by other parties, including the CIA, to stop.
A Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) report on Feb. 2 quoted an unnamed Pakistani diplomat as claiming that the United States and the Afghan government “had given Pakistan a lead role” in peace talks. In the context of other Pakistani statements indicating the opposite, that claim was a clear indication that Pakistan intended to act unilaterally in defiance of U.S. wishes in staking out a lead role.
The diplomat revealed that Pakistan is eager for peace negotiations to begin with the Taliban soon, contrary to the Barack Obama administration’s official position that the Taliban must first announce publicly that it has cut ties with al Qaeda. He said Pakistan wanted “some sort of process should start as soon as possible and shape up into reality before the planned U.S. withdrawal by the middle of next year.”
That was a clear indication that Pakistan does not expect the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan to be effective in altering the power balance between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The unnamed diplomat said Pakistan would come up with its own negotiating proposals “and establish initial contact with the Taliban and other militant groups.”
Even more revealing, the Pakistani official said, “Yes, we have considerable influence over the Taliban,” he said, “And we will play our role in securing peace in Afghanistan.”
That was the first time that a Pakistani official had explicitly acknowledged that Pakistan has such influence over the Taliban leaders.
In the New York Review of Books article, Rashid wrote that Pakistan was no longer denying its special relationship with the Taliban after nine years of doing so. He suggested that the idea of Pakistan “playing host” to the Taliban in conjunction with the peace negotiations was no longer out of the question.
Five days after the DPA interview with the Pakistani diplomat, the Pakistanis took Mullah Baradar into custody.
Rashid interprets that Pakistani move as the logical culmination of the policy decision he had reported earlier. He told Radio Free Europe he hoped Baradar would be treated as a “guest” rather than as a prisoner, and would be used to “start some kind of negotiations” involving the Taliban leadership, the Afghans and the U.S.
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East Analysis for Stratfor, a private strategic analysis firm, suggested that the Pakistanis may indeed be treating Baradar as a guest rather than as a conventional prisoner. “I’m not sure whether this is an arrest in the usual sense of the word, or a cover for a Pakistani effort assert its influence on Baradar,” Bokhari told IPS.
Bokhari, who has maintained contacts with Pakistani intelligence officials, said he “wouldn’t rule out” the possibility that Baradar would be allowed to participate in negotiations while in Pakistan’s custody.
U.S. officials portrayed the apprehension of Baradar as the result of a “secret joint operation” involving the CIA and ISI, and a senior Pakistani official was quoted by Time magazine as saying the CIA had identified the “general area” of Karachi in which Baradar was located.
But Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, who served on the staff of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre’s Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning from 2005 to 2007, told IPS Baradar could not have been captured without an ISI decision that it was in Pakistan’s interest to do so. “Arguably, ISI could have picked up Baradar at any point,” said Nelson.
U.S. officials have long said that ISI knows the location of Taliban leaders in Pakistan.
Baradar is well acquainted with the ISI officers, with whom he has been in contact for many years. That suggests that the interrogation of Baradar by ISI is likely to be carefully controlled by ISI to ensure that it does not produce any information that would harm the Taliban.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation told USA Today Tuesday it is “very possible” the Pakistanis “may be limiting the information that is extracted from Baradar in order to prevent the release of information that will be damaging to them.”
ABC News quoted a U.S. official Tuesday as saying that Baradar “is not quite cooperating with authorities and that they have not gotten anything actionable from him.”
The official U.S. position, repeated Wednesday by Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, is that the Taliban leadership has shown no interest thus far in negotiations.
But Rashid said Baradar not only had met with Afghan and Saudi officials in early 2009 but had authorised subordinates to conduct negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, in southern Afghanistan.
Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil insisted in an interview with IPS last month that Mullah Omar is still the Taliban leader who “makes the decisions”, and that Baradar “is saying whatever he is told.”
The Pakistani move to take control of Baradar appears to be the second major instance of Pakistani defiance of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the past two months.
Last December, the Obama administration put strong pressure on Pakistani leaders to crack down on Siraj Haqqani, the top insurgent leader in eastern Afghanistan who operates out of a sanctuary in Pakistan’s Northern Waziristan and is known to be a long-time ISI asset.
The Pakistani leaders reacted to the pressure with “public silence and private anger,” according to a New York Times report Dec. 14.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.