Pakistan is establishing a new Taleban leadership that is more aggressive, less inclined to talk and primarily follows the instructions of its ISI minders, says Christoph Reuter(1). With this aim, it manipulates different leaders of militant groups, using targeted arrests and ‘invitations’ into ‘guesthouses’.
When it became known on 16 Februar that the number three of the Afghan Taleban, Mulla Baradar, was arrested in the Pakistani city of Karachi, a wave of triumphal relief went through the US and other media. This, politicians and terrorism experts proclaimed with verve, was a sea change in Pakistan’s policy. Its leadership finally had realized, they say, that it also had to take up the fight against the Afghan Taleban. When it became known a few days later that two shadow provincial governors as well as other Taleban leaders were nabbed in Pakistan, this assumption seemed to have been proven. More than 30 years after Pakistan’s military started organizing the fight of the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet occupation and one and a half decades after it built up the Taleban, it had turned around its policy by 180 degrees – to fighting terrorism.
This assumption, however, has more to do with wishful thinking than with reality. It is likely that the arrest of half a dozen members of the Quetta Shura will temporarily weaken the Taleban’s military leadership. Some evidence and statements by Pakistani and Afghan intelligence officials, however, point to another interpretation: Pakistan does not want to destroy the Afghan Taleban but to bring them back under its control. And even more. As Kamran Bokhari, the Pakistan expert of the think tank Stratfor, puts it: ‘Is it perhaps Pakistan’s attempt to win back its influence over the Afghan Taleban while cooperating with the US and delivering those elements to them that do not necessarily harmonise with its own interests at the same time?’ Army chief General Kayani will visit the US in the coming days.
Pakistan’s ISI had monitored Baradar’s movements since years – his moving from Quetta to Karachi, his activities there – but it never intervened. In the same way, it can be assumed, as it is monitoring the whole Taleban leadership.
Apart from those officially announced, there are arrests that are never published. According to various sources, three months ago even Sirajuddin Haqqani – the military leader of the Haqqani network in South-Eastern Afghanistan – had been held for several weeks by the ISI, possibly as a ‘guest’ in a safehouse. Haqqani tops the US ‘wanted list’ because the Americans hold him responsible for some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and for closely cooperating with al-Qaida. His temporary stay with the ISI does not signal a break but was meant to impress on him not to follow Baradar’s way of looking for negotiations on his own.
These sources further claim that other Taleban commanders – amongst them Kunar governor Maulawi Fazl Rabi – are in Pakistani custody but that it hadn’t been decided yet whether they should be officially announced arrested now or let go again, like Haqqani. They also confirm the arrest of Mullah Seyyed Tayyeb Agha, one of two Mulla Omar’s right-hand men, and a certain Hakimuddin Mehsud. Both had been collecting donations from madrassas and businesses in Karachi’s Seyyedabad neighbourhood for the fighting Taleban in Helmand. At the same time, the ISI is said to strengthen radical jihadi factions like the one of Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of the so-called ‘Brigade 313’, linked to the Pakistani group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, that is composed of suicide bombers and also operates in Afghanistan.
The wave of arrests could turn into the opposite of what Washington and Kabul desire: instead of a negotiated settlement, a new Taleban leadership emerges that is more aggressive, less inclined to talk to the Afghan government and primarily follows the instructions of its ISI minders.
(1) Christoph Reuter is a correspondent for German magazine ‘Stern’, based in Kabul. He regularly contributes to the AAN guest blog.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020