The New York Times is reporting that the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been captured during a joint ISI-CIA raid in Karachi, Pakistan.
The arrest occurred at least before last Thursday, when the NYT claims to have discovered the information. A White House request (or injunction) delayed reporting until Baradar’s arrest had become known to the Taliban.
Baradar’s downfall is a significant event not because of his own position so much as Pakistan’s actions. Baradar is part of Mullah Omar’s inner council, which America suspects is hiding in Quetta, but that was months ago. The CIA has since claimed “the Quetta Shura” moved to Karcahi, where Baradar happened to be found.
So on the surface it appears Pakistan finally moved on Mullah Omar’s circle, a critical turning point if the whole story checks out. The NYT reports, “American officials have speculated that Pakistani security officials could have picked up Mullah Baradar long ago.”
An Obama official also referred to Pakistan’s assistance by saying the White House has, “no reason to think that anybody was double-dealing at all.”
Still, a few trees block the forest’s exit.
One is the level of CIA activity in Pakistan. Though the government has approved FBI, CIA and PMC operatives, Islamabad doesn’t have much credibility among its people and its approval is by no means a blanket for US military operations in Pakistan. Approving Blackwater, for instance, carries little weight among the public.
A second issue stems from the first. Mullah Baradar is said to be in Pakistani custody and already being interrogated on Mullah Omar and his council. ISI agents are supposedly taking the lead, but CIA operatives are involved. The NYT reports that Baradar’s rights are unclear, noting, “The Pakistanis have long been known to subject prisoners to brutal questioning.”
Thus Pakistani officials could torture and US officials would simply jot down his testimony. No harm, no foul right? We’ll see.
The shadowy underbelly of the operation against Bardar feeds back into Pakistan’s sincerity. Is its actions truly pure, or is there an alternative motive lying beneath the surface? Was Baradar’s presence too obvious to plausibly ignore? Is Islamabad just trying to get Washington off its back? And if any controversy starts to bubble over the CIA’s level of involvement, how far will Pakistan go to protect?
We only wonder because relations between America and Pakistan are never as simple as presented.
We’re also left with the same question as with Mahmoud al-Mabhouh - how much does Baradar’s loss matter in the ultimate scheme of things? Bruce Reidel, former CIA operative and current Obama adviser, was quoted by the NYT as saying, “His capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations, at least in the short term.”
The NYT reports, “Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mullah Baradar was assigned by Mullah Omar to assume overall command of Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan. In that role, he oversaw a large group of battle-hardened Arab and foreign fighters who were based in the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.”
Since then he’s been promoted to head of all military operations. Citing a Newsweek interview with Baradar, the NYT claims, “He ranks second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar.”
The question, then, is not whether Baradar was a significant target, which he is, but whether he’s replaceable. The Taliban’s top commander has fallen before; Mullah Dadullah was killed in 2007. The insurgency also took off after he fell. A majority of Mullah Omar’s comrades have fallen in battle or been captured, only for new blades of grass to rise.
Here’s one of many reports that illustrate this point: Key Taliban Leaders in Afghanistan Eliminated.
Dated July 24th, 2008, the ABC News report opened by claiming, “After a relentless series of ‘decapitation strikes’ coalition sources say they have captured or killed almost the entire leadership of the Taliban that confronted NATO a year ago.”
"The Taliban's command and control, as it was, has effectively been liquidated in south Afghanistan," said a senior NATO official. "The acid test is whether this will prove a strategic turning point, or whether a new leadership will emerge that is less controlled but more deadly."
The report highlights the death Taliban commanders close to Mullah Omar, including Mullah Dadullah, Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund, and Mullah Akhtar Usmani. Usmani in particular had been killed in December 2006. Considered a potential secession to Mullah Omar and one of the Taliban’s most dangerous commanders, his death was expected to bring disarray to the Taliban ranks.
One NATO commander said many local Taliban commanders were "getting a real sense that their death is near."
Nearly two years later and the reality is easy to see - a new leadership both re-emerged and managed to maintain control while increasing the Taliban’s deadliness. It’s safe to say these “turning points” failed to turn.
Baradar’s case differs in that he’s been captured, not killed, and may possibly yield information on Mullah Omar, his circle, or Taliban strategy and battle plans. The fact that he’s been taken into custody provides a greater chance that his removal of the battlefield will result in positive effects.
At the same time, senior Taliban commanders have also been taken prisoner in the past and failed to produce the desired outcome. Sakhi Dad Mujahid, the Taliban’s deputy Defense Minister and relative of Mullah Omar, was captured in 2004 and nearly tipped off Omar’s location, but the Taliban have a code for such a situation.
It’s difficult to envision Baradar giving up any useful information or that his vacuum will stay open for long. Others just as hardcore will be honored to assume his position. The arrest makes for great timing with Operation Moshtarak and could certainly lead to more arrests, but the effects are unlikely manifest as advertised.
It would be a first if they do.