On January 26, the Afghan Taliban and US officials in Doha, Qatar, agreed on a preliminary draft of a likely peace accord, including US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 18 months. If this is not a false beginning, it denotes the adoption of a “moderate” approach by the Taliban under their negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Mullah Baradar was a Taliban leader Pakistan was keeping under lock and key as its winning pawn in the unfolding Great Game in Afghanistan. He was captured from Karachi jointly by the CIA and ISI in February 2010 — triggering speculation that Mullah Umar, too, had been in Karachi — then used as a kind of barometer of US-Pak divergence on Afghanistan. Bilateral relations kept dipping and Pakistan held on to the pawns it thought it had in Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar was one such. Then, in October 2018, getting tired of opposing the Americans and losing out in domestic peace, Pakistan let Mullah Baradar go.
Now the Americans want to quit Afghanistan despite better advice. President Trump has the voting public behind him and he wants to save the $43 billion America spends in Afghanistan annually getting mauled by the Taliban who control half of Afghanistan and, according to some in Washington and Kabul, are stationed in Pakistan and cross the Durand Line to humiliate the Afghan army. The Americans have changed tack on “hostile Pakistan” and requested another “peace process” with the Taliban with its intercession.
The Taliban are ready, too. They have appointed Mullah Baradar as chief of their political office in Doha, Qatar, where negotiations on the “withdrawal of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan” will take place. Mullah Baradar is now considered to be a “moderate” whom the Taliban have put forth as representative of their “chastened” view of Afghanistan as a country where interests other than only the Taliban are powerfully represented. He is supposed to strengthen the Taliban’s position vis-à-vis the Americans.
The Americans thought Pakistan would let its prisoner in Karachi come out and talk to them in 2013 but Pakistan thought otherwise. It wanted its own interests protected, which diverged from those of the Americans; and since no agreement was reached, Pakistan prevented “moderate” Mullah Baradar from meeting the Americans. Americans were wrong in thinking that the Taliban had become “softened”. If Pakistan thought Mullah Baradar would safeguard their stake in the Pashtun border areas of Afghanistan in talks, it was wrong too. Mullah Baradar comes from the “ruling Durrani tribe” represented by the founder-king of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Durrani. He was from the sub-tribe of the Popalzai-Durrani, close to the Ghilzai tribe, to which Mullah Umar belonged. After 9/11, when the Americans went after the government of Mullah Umar, it was his minister, Mullah Baradar, who got him out of harm’s way.
After the rescue, Mullah Umar came to Pakistan — this has since been challenged as it was revealed that he in fact stayed on in Afghanistan — and set up the Quetta Shura with Mullah Baradar as his second-in-command. If Pakistan knew the price it would have to pay for the Quetta Shura, it wouldn’t have allowed it. One reliable “internal” source published the following in Express-Tribune of June 26, 2013: “When Baradar was captured in 2010 by a joint Pak-US effort, the ISI took him in custody, promising the CIA that he would be handed over to them the next day. To the amazement of the ISI personnel, Baradar disclosed to them that his capture was arranged for him to negotiate a deal with the CIA unbeknownst to Omer and to the ISI.”
If the Americans leave, the Taliban will face a different Afghanistan. Pakistan is no longer keen on the Taliban who make it vulnerable to the “jihadi” madrasas which dreaming of an ideal Pakistan close to their medieval dreams. Because of the creeping takeover by the “pious warriors” of the cities in the settled areas, Pakistan has led two operations against these elements.
Afghanistan now has a north which is more organised to fight the Taliban with a little help from the neighbours in the north and Turkey. There is an Indian presence in Afghanistan, building infrastructure and helping the less Islamised generations of Afghans with education, apart from indirect participation from Russia and China. Mullah Baradar, chastened by what happened in 2001, will have much to think about before he gets the Taliban into another jihad.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 23, 2019, under the title ‘The Mullah Baradar mystery’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan