Capturing Baradar: the ISI reformed?

The capture of Taliban number two Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has been hailed as indicating a change of approach by Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. With a reformed image and important bargaining card, Pakistan looks set to benefit from the move.
Aziz Hakimi
19 February 2010

Many analysts agree that the role played by ISI in capturing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the man who is known as deputy leader of the Taliban, is no less significant a breakthrough than the arrest of the man. 

Mullah Baradar, who is said to be the leader of the Taliban’s “Quetta Shura”, as well as the overall military commander and strategist of the insurgents, was arrested in an ISI-led secret joint operation with the CIA in Karachi, Pakistan. 

Some analysts believe that Mullah Baradar’s capture, at a time when a major military operation is underway in the south of Afghanistan, could increase the pressure on the Taliban insurgents and push them towards the reconciliation option. However, it is also important to note that the Taliban in past have managed to swiftly replace their arrested or killed senior leaders, without major interruptions in their activities. 

An example of which was the arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the defence minister under the Taliban government in Afghanistan, who later became an insurgent commander during the war with the United States and its allies. He was reported captured by Pakistani security forces in March 2007 but the loss did not seem to undermine the Taliban. 

Pakistan released Mullah Obaidullah in May 2008. Although Pakistani authorities denied that his release was part of a negotiated prisoner swap, they were contradicted by the Taliban, who later reported that there that Mullah Obaidullah was freed in return for Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan kidnapped on 11 February 2008.

The ISI has a colourful history of supporting Islamist militants, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISI support for the nascent Taliban during the Afghan civil war is widely seen as having been crucial in its march to power. Last October, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, accused the ISI of tolerating Al-Qaeda activities in Pakistan territories.

The lack of full cooperation from the ISI in curbing the militant activity in both Pakistan and Afghanistan has been a major challenge in stabilizing the region, besides posing an occasional threat to the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. 

The arrest of Mullah Baradar has led some analysts to ask whether his capture signals a change in the ISI’s approach to dealing with the Taliban and other extremist groups, or whether it is merely the latest round of the ISI’s long-favoured game of obfuscation.

The former, optimists hope, would provide a valuable opportunity to bring the insurgency in Afghanistan to an end. The Economist interpreted the move as "perhaps reflecting a change in policy by the government in Islamabad. Pakistan had previously bought off Washington by co-operating on the capture of al-Qaeda figures, while keeping the Afghan Taliban leadership safe." At a time when, on seeing the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan that remain undisrupted  and the insurgent’s influence growing inside Afghanistan, the US is losing patience with Pakistan, the ISI may have redeemed itself in American eyes. Having said that, some analysts believe that Mullah Baradar’s arrest might represent only a temporary confluence of ISI and American interests, which in the long run will remain divergent.

Meanwhile some observers believe Mullah Baradar’s arrest could create a sense of insecurity amongst the Taliban. American Security think-tanker Michael Cohen says an ISI crack-down would devastate the Taliban. "One can only imagine the impact on Taliban feelings of security and reliance on Pakistani support: that safe haven ain't feeling so safe anymore. One has to think this will affect the drive toward political reconciliation in a dramatic way - because if you're the Taliban this news suggests that time is no longer necessarily on your side."

In a more pessimistic vein, Afghan analysts suspect that by arresting Mullah Baradar the ISI seeks to gain a more significant role for Pakistan in the region.  Their suspicions are based in part on the timing of the ISI coup. Immediately after the Afghan government announced its peace plan with the Taliban, Pakistani officials said they wanted to play a significant role in the peace process.  The arrest of Mullah Baradar strengthens Pakistan’s hand in any negotiation with the Taliban. Some Afghans suspect that Pakistan’s intention is to bargain on behalf of the Taliban in any forthcoming reconciliation process.

Pakistani analyst Arif Rafiq in Pakistan Policy blogs: “With its contacts, geographic location, and new-found “responsible” approach, it’s Pakistan — not Iran, India, or Russia — that is positioned to play the role of stability guarantor in a post-American Afghanistan, especially as it pertains to U.S. interests.” Pakistani officials have made similar comments, including the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who boasted Pakistan’s ability to turn Afghanistan into a “win-win” situation for the US, ISAF and Pakistan itself. Whatever its motives or long term effect on the insurgency, Baradar’s capture provides Pakistan with opportunities to make political capital.


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