The Pakistan Connection

There’s been a lot of wonder expressed about the recent capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Omar’s operations deputy, in Pakistan.  After the Pakistanis swore off any new offensives against the Taliban this year, and with their intelligence service, the ISI, known to be infiltrated by the Taliban and other Islamist extremists – why would they apparently cooperate in capturing Baradar?

Now the news is out that another Taliban commander has been captured in Pakistan.  This time it’s one Mullah Abdul Salam, reportedly the “shadow governor” of Kunduz Province.

Have the Pakistanis done an about-face?  Does the ISI now really want to roll up the Taliban?  Is there anything that would lead us to believe that, other than the blank fact of two recent takedowns?

The best answers are:  Unlikely; Probably not; and No.  But there is information readily available that sheds light on what’s going on.  And what it points to is the conclusion that Pakistan’s de facto leadership is determined to wield the primary influence over how any accord is negotiated between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban.

This priority has arisen just now because of the strong – some sources would say overriding – interest shown by the Obama administration in what’s being called “reintegration”:  negotiating with “moderate” Taliban to get them to lay down their arms and reintegrate with Afghan society and politics on a consensual basis.  That policy vector, combined with Obama’s 18-month window to begin a drawdown of US forces, means Islamabad has a limited time horizon for making key moves.

The recent captures probably represent one such key move.  Baradar, the second-in-command, is reported to have brokered a Taliban meeting in Dubai in January, with the UN’s top representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide.  To jog your memory, Dubai is one of the United Arab Emirates over in the Persian Gulf (the insolvent one with the man-made island chain and the famous al-Burj Hotel).  And while there is contrary word about this – Baradar reported as denying it, some sources saying he was detained because he refused to meet with Eide – the meeting would be in character.  Baradar is considered more conciliating and diplomatic than his chief, Mullah Omar, and was the leader of last year’s Taliban delegation to Kabul for talks with Hamid Karzai’s older brother, Qayyum.

The disquieting aspect of Baradar’s diplomacy for the Pakistanis can be found in this passage from a piece by Nouvel Observateur reporter Sara Daniel in December 2009, based on interviews in Afghanistan (emphasis added):

…i[t] seems that the political leadership of the Taliban, tossing around between Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, would like to put an end to its wanderings in Pakistan. That’s the sense of the messages from the Quetta choura [shura] and its representatives, Baradar and Mohamed Mansour, former chief education officer. The rebels would like to install themselves somewhere, then form a government-in-exile to elaborate the conditions for a negotiation with the Karzai government. Why not in Saudi Arabia where Mullah Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, has already tried to organize a meeting between the enemy sides? Then from Riyadh, the Taliban leadership could negotiate its own neutrality in exchange for a right to return, amnesty and participation in political life after the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Pakistan’s own extremist mullahs wouldn’t like the sound of that.  Now, they may not exert all the control over regional Islamists attributed to them by one of Daniel’s main sources, Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a member of the Afghan Senate.  Rahmani is a one-time Taliban leader who joined the new government after the Coalition victory, and Daniel reports his analysis as follows:

According to him, the key to potential negotiations is in the hands of the Pakistani mullahs, themselves under ISI – the Pakistani secret services’ – control.  As are Mullah Fazel Rahman and Sami ul-Haq, who lead the coalition of Pakistani fundamentalist religious parties. “Before the Taliban, it is they who must be convinced to make peace, because today they control al-Qaeda and bin Laden and hold the future of the region in their hands …”

This last is an overstatement.  But:  to the extent the Pakistani mullahs want to hold the future of the region in their hands, they can’t like the prospect of the Afghan Taliban building a separate power base elsewhere, and negotiating a separate modus vivendi with the Karzai and NATO governments.  The Pakistani tribal mullahs have never been fans of corrupt Saudi money anyway, and the Afghan Taliban would only channel that competing influence into the Pakistanis’ back yard by leveraging Saudi assistance to gain a negotiating position.

McClatchy reporter Saeed Shah finds confirmation from Pakistani analysts that the main hope of negotiations for Taliban “reintegration” lay with Baradar, at least before his capture:

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.

I don’t buy the prediction that this has to be a fight to the bitter end, with Baradar out of the picture.  But I think this has happened:  the threat of an independent negotiating initiative by the Afghan Taliban has been removed.  The Pakistani mullahs have averted, for now, a separate process they didn’t have control over.  The Shah article even suggests they may try to make Baradar their own asset, and exert control of any negotiation process through him, after a suitable interim.

As Afghan senator Rahmani implied to Sara Daniel, the government in Islamabad has a mutual interest, with its Islamist party leaders and tribal mullahs, in averting an independent negotiation process that would leave Pakistanis without a central role.  For the government itself, this is in large part because of the long-disputed border between the two countries, in theory demarcated by the Durand Line.  Pakistan will not easily tolerate the Afghan Taliban, with their strong tribal and ethnic ties to elements within Pakistan, negotiating national reconciliation with outsiders, and abetted by outsiders.  That’s how Islamabad ended up with the disputed Durand Line in the first place.

The Great Game continues.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.