Arrest of No. 2 may throw Taliban, peace talks into disarray

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2010 

KABUL — The arrest of the second-ranking Taliban leader last week in Pakistan is likely to throw the Islamist movement into disarray and disrupt the Taliban military campaign, and it could mark a strategic U-turn for the government in Islamabad, former Taliban and Western analysts said Tuesday.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official said the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar would be "a shock to the rest of the senior Taliban leadership" because of his close relationship with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and because it came as U.S.-led forces pressed their military offensive in Helmand province.

"Mullah Baradar is a major terrorist, whose removal will disrupt anti-coalition attacks in Afghanistan for a while," said the official, who refused to be identified.

A senior Western military official in the region said Pakistani cooperation in the capture "is a very big deal" and "the loss of the organization's top strategic and operational figure is a big deal, a huge blow to the enemy at this particular moment in time. Continuity in leadership is going to be extremely difficult," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with journalists

The White House refused to comment.

The detention of Baradar, by one account in a joint U.S.-Pakistani intelligence swoop in the southern city of Karachi, is the most significant arrest of a Taliban leader since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban government in Kabul. Taliban, NATO and Pakistani officials confirmed the arrest to McClatchy.

Under interrogation, Baradar could yield a great deal of information, including the whereabouts of Omar and even of the al Qaida leadership.

Baradar was the head of the Taliban's leadership council — the so-called Quetta Shura, which operates in underground exile in Pakistan — and he commanded its military operations. He ranked second only to Omar, who hasn't been seen in public since 2001. Omar acts as the spiritual head of the group, while Baradar had operational control.

However, Baradar's arrest, first reported by The New York Times, also could jeopardize some of the peace overtures that are under way, the officials said.

U.N. officials told McClatchy that Baradar had facilitated an inconclusive meeting last month in Dubai between midlevel Taliban commanders and Kai Eide, the departing top U.N. official in Kabul.

It's conceivable, however, that Pakistan could use Baradar's capture to split the Taliban by offering a forum for him to negotiate with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

According to Vahid Mojdeh, a former Afghan official who worked under the Taliban, Baradar was instrumental in reining in insurgent violence, by banning sectarian killings and indiscriminate bombings.

"Baradar was an obstacle against al Qaida, who wanted to make an operation in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq," Mojdeh said. "But Baradar would not allow them to kill Shias" — the minority Muslim sect — "or set off explosions in crowded places."

Pakistani analysts said Baradar's capture suggested either that Islamabad had abandoned its attempt to promote peace talks or the Taliban number two had fallen afoul of the Pakistani authorities. Analysts said Baradar was the most likely point of contact for any future talks.

"This is inexplicable. Pakistan has destroyed its own credentials as a mediator between Taliban and Americans. And the trust that might have existed between Taliban and Pakistan is shattered completely," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban.

He added: "Mullah Baradar was talking peace. ... For the time being, there are no prospects for talks. I think it's now going to be a fight to the bitter end."

With his arrest, reaching Taliban officials for contacts is likely to become more difficult. Karzai and Baradar come from the same Popolzai tribe.

"If they want to talk to the Taliban he (Baradar) was the known person, the known address. But what Pakistan's done is disappear the address for the Taliban. No Taliban will show themselves now. For a long time, they'll disappear again," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and a former prisoner at Guantanamo, told McClatchy.

Some think that Baradar, in making the talks with Eide possible, may have acted without the knowledge or support of his Pakistani hosts and was freelancing on the peace talks, which meant that Islamabad feared it had lost control of the negotiations.

Up till now, the U.S. has charged that Pakistan secretly supported the Taliban through its Inter-Services Intelligence agency and gave sanctuary to its leadership, despite officially turning its back on the Islamic extremist movement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the insurgency spiraled in Afghanistan, Pakistan came under severe and increasing pressure from Washington to crack down on the Taliban commanders who were on its soil. Baradar's arrest was the first firm indication that Islamabad now may be cooperating.

There were suggestions that fellow Taliban who were unhappy with Baradar's openness to peace talks may have betrayed him.

The exact circumstances of his capture remain unclear. Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, denied Tuesday that the country would allow American agents to take part in an operation on its soil.

A senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, Akhtar Mohammad, confirmed the arrest to McClatchy but disputed the location.

"I agree he is arrested, in Helmand," Mohammad said by telephone. "He was arrested by NATO forces in Marjah."

Baradar's capture came as U.S.-led forces are pressing the biggest offensive since 2001 against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand, centered on the town of Marjah.

The dislocation in the Taliban's leadership could throw them into disarray.

Many analysts think that the leadership of the Afghan Taliban shifted some time ago from Quetta, a remote western Pakistani city close to the border with Afghanistan, to Karachi, in part to avoid the U.S. drone aircraft that target militants in Pakistan's tribal belt.

There is a huge population of ethnic Pashtuns in Karachi — some 3 million, largely in crowded ghettoes — the same ethnic group that makes up most of the Taliban, making it easy for the insurgents to melt into their surroundings.

The Taliban have shown themselves to be resilient, with arrested or killed battlefield commanders and shura members replaced quickly.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Nooruddin Bakhshi in Kabul and Jonathan S. Landay and Roy Gutman in Washington contributed to this article.)

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