Top Taliban commander captured in Pakistan

Taliban chief Mullah Baradar seized by US and Pakistani security services. Saudis doubtful about effectiveness of sanctions on Iran. Tensions in Kenyan government lead prime minister to seek international help. Libya orders complete visa ban for Europeans. All this and much more, in today’s security update.
Dries Belet
16 February 2010

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the operational commander of the Afghan Taliban, has been captured by American and Pakistani forces in a secret joint operation. US and Pakistani officials have confirmed he is being held and interrogated in Pakistan after his arrest in Karachi last week.

News of the capture was made public by The New York Times, which got details from unnamed US government officials about the raid last Thursday, but was asked by the White House to delay publication for security reasons.

Mullah Baradar was the Taliban’s second-in-command, leading their military and financial day-to-day operations as lieutenant to overall leader Mullah Omar. Experts describe him as a highly skilled military leader, responsible for devising Taliban guerrilla tactics such as the heavy use of roadside bombs.

Although the arrest was confirmed by several sources, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters Baradar was still free, claiming the news was “a rumour spread by foreigners to divert attention from the Marja offensive”. The arrest coincides with the start of operation Moshtarak, a large-scale offensive NATO offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The openSecurity verdict: Several of the Afghan Taliban's leaders are commonly assumed to reside in Pakistan, directing the insurgency from across the border with Afghanistan. Pakistani and US intelligence services believe that Karachi, a metropolis of 14 million people in the south of Pakistan, has become a haven for the Afghan Taliban leadership, especially since the US intensified drone strikes on the Taliban’s former hiding places along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. Among those believed to be hiding in Karachi are most of the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council. Formerly chaired by Mullah Baradar, the council consists of over a dozen of the Taliban’s best-known leaders, decides on grand strategy for the insurgency, and names Taliban military commanders and ‘shadow governors’ for Afghan provinces.

In the past, the US has been greatly annoyed by Pakistan’s reluctance to pursue and apprehend Taliban leaders. Islamabad has had close ties to the Afghan Taliban, and still views the Taliban as prospective partners should NATO forces leave Afghanistan in the near future. The capture is an indication that the senior Pakistani leaders, such as the army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, have adjusted their position and are now less concerned about antagonising the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are increasingly viewed as a serious threat, with links emerging between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups who have launched numerous attacks on the Pakistani government, security forces, and civilians. American officials, who speculate that Pakistan could have arrested Baradar long ago, hope the Pakistani military and intelligence services may finally have begun to distance themselves from the Taliban.

Baradar is now thought to be in interrogation, but it is unclear whether he is talking. Intelligence services hope he can lead them to Mullah Omar and to other senior Taliban officials. The Pakistani services are known for their brutal interrogation methods, and while American intelligence officials were ordered to cease using harsh interrogation measures which in many cases amounted to torture, it is unknown whether they will influence the Pakistanis to exercise restraint.

The effect of Baradar’s capture on the overall direction of the Taliban is hard to predict. The Taliban are believed to be a hierarchical organization to some extent, with field commanders in Afghanistan taking orders from higher-up leaders across the border in Pakistan. Mullah Baradar was a key leader in various Taliban operations, and in the short term the loss of his direction might disrupt the insurgency and reduce its effectiveness. “I would call it significant”, an anonymous US official told Reuters - but he also pointed out that the Taliban have shown “an amazing resilience to bounce back”, because it is “an adaptive organization”.

Mullah Baradar is thought to be one of the more moderate Taliban leaders, willing to consider negotiations with the Afghan government. Some commentators have even speculated that his detention could be intended to talk to him in a bid to open channels of communication with the Taliban. Conversely, his removal from the Taliban leadership might allow more extremist commanders to step into his place, strengthening the militant stance of the insurgents.

Although a still more extreme Taliban might make negotiations aimed at reconcilliation more difficult, in the long run it might actually boost the chances of success for NATO’s new counter-insurgency strategy. After all, if the Taliban focus on introducing a new brand of harsh Islamic justice and Al-Qaeda style ideology rather than bringing security to civilians, they will further alienate the Afghan population, and their support in key areas such as Helmand and Kandahar will be undermined.

Saudis doubtful about effectiveness of sanctions on Iran

Saudi Arabia has warned against the slow effect of potential sanctions on Iran, saying these could not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. After a meeting with Hillary Clinton, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the Iranian threat demanded a “more immediate solution”.

The prince also played down the idea that Saudi Arabia could nudge China towards endorsing sanctions against Iran, by offering Beijing the guarantee of Saudi oil in case Iranian supplies are disrupted. He commented that China “needs no suggestion from Saudi Arabia to do what they ought to do,” adding that China would go along with the international community anyway since it “carries its responsibilities” in the UN security council “very seriously”.

Clinton, who earlier had said that Iran is moving towards a “military dictatorship”, repeated that the US does not plan to use military action to foil Iran’s nuclear objectives. She emphasized the US will focus its efforts on a UN sanctions package, aimed in particular at interests controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Tensions in Kenyan government lead prime minister to seek international help

The Kenyan prime minister has requested that Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, return to the country to help heal the country's deepening political crisis. PM Raila Odinga hopes Annan will help solve a dispute with the president that is threatening a two-year old power-sharing agreement in which Annan was a key mediator.

The public conflict between the two leaders escalated when President Mwai Kibaki reinstated two ministers who had been suspended by Odinga pending a corruption investigation into the disappearance of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Odinga claims that Kibaki’s overruling him was against the law, because the prime minister has exclusive authority over the appointment of cabinet members. Kibaki has countered that Odinga failed to consult him over the suspensions, which he says is required by the power-sharing agreement.

Transparency International has warned that the rift in the fragile government could lead to political “meltdown”. It criticized the leaders for risking turning Kenya into a failed state. The current power-sharing government was created in 2008 to end the bloodshed that claimed more than 1,000 lives after the last election in December 2007.

Libya orders complete visa ban for Europeans

On Monday, Libya said it had stopped issuing visas to citizens of most European countries. Officials at the country’s main international airport turned away all Europeans, except for British nationals (Britain does not belong to Europe’s Schengen passport zone, which includes Switzerland). The move took place in apparent retaliation for Switzerland’s recent decision to publish a blacklist of 180 Libyans banned form entering the country, including Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family.

An Italian foreign ministry spokesman said that “contacts are under way between the countries of the zone to coordinate over this measure”. The long-running diplomatic conflict between Switzerland and Libya was started by a short arrest of Gaddafi’s son in Switzerland, which was followed by the prosecution of two Swiss businessmen in Libya.

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