It has been reported that Pakistan has released the most senior Taleban it had in its custody, Mullah Abdul-Ghani Baradar. At the time of his arrest in Karachi in 2010, Baradar was the effective number two in the movement and de facto operational chief of the insurgency. Both the Pakistani and Afghan governments have said they believe his release will help reconciliation. AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark looks at who Baradar is and what he might contribute to finding a negotiated end to the conflict, with input from Thomas Ruttig and Martine van Bijlert.
In just one terse sentence the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an announcement yesterday that the much anticipated prisoner release would be taking place:
In order to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process, the detained Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would be released tomorrow (21 September 2013).
Speculation had been growing for more than a week that this would happen (see here, here, here, here and here) with both Pakistan and Afghanistan talking up Baradar’s utility (as yet explained by neither) for the ‘peace process’. Several international news agencies reporting out of Pakistan have now cited government officials saying he has actually been freed (see AP here and AFP here).
Baradar was one of the most experienced Taleban commanders, at the heart of the movement since its earliest days in Kandahar. Like Mullah Omar, he is from Dehrawod in Uruzgan, but he grew up in Kandahar in a madrassa. He is from the same Popalzai tribe as President Karzai. According to Bette Dam, a Dutch journalist who has worked extensively on the south (and who has written a book on Hamed Karzai’s rise to power), Baradar and Mullah Omar have been friends since they were in the same fighting group during the anti-Soviet jihad and he was with Mullah Omar when the Taleban was formed in 1994, although at that time not as one of the key leaders.
As the Taleban expanded through the country during the 1990s, Baradar took on a succession of posts, almost all military: he was head of the south-western military zone, (possibly briefly) governor of Herat (1998), head of the Central Army Corps in Kabul and Deputy Chief of Staff in 1999. He also used to occasionally deputise for Mullah Obaidullah as minister for defence. He was certainly actively involved in the war at the various fronts during those years. The Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP) reports him as having been in Kunduz, the Taleban’s early northern stronghold, in 1997 when Taleban forces attacked, captured and then lost Mazar-e Sharif and as leading a major force into Balkhab, Sari Pul – one of the remaining Northern Alliance enclaves – in 1999. The same report provides testimony that, as deputy chief of staff, on the ground during the Taleban offensive on the Shomali in 1999, “he personally order[ed] and over-[saw] one of the massacres, the summary execution of the eleven air base personnel at Dasht-e Chirchirik on August 3.” (1)
After the US intervention of 2001, Baradar was involved in the most significant attempt at a Taleban surrender. As Anand Gopal reported, Baradar – along with Taleban defence minister, Mullah Obaidullah, aide to Mullah Omar and now head of the Qatar political office, Tayyeb Agha, Minister of Interior, Abdul Razaq, and other senior Taleban – appointed Obaidullah to deliver a letter, purportedly with Mullah Omar’s permission, to Hamed Karzai. Karzai had just been selected at the Bonn Conference as Afghanistan’s new interim leader and was travelling from Uruzgan to Kandahar. The letter, according to Gopal, acknowledged that the Islamic Emirate had no chance of surviving and stated their willingness to accept Karzai’s leadership. The Taleban’s main request was “to be given immunity from arrest in exchange for agreeing to abstain from political life.” Like other attempts at reconciliation, this one fell on stony ground (see reporting here) and Baradar went on to become one of the key commanders of the insurgency.
After the fall of the Taleban regime, Mullah Omar, the Taleban’s ‘Amir ul-Mu’menin’ was in hiding and largely incommunicado, Mullah Obaidullah was number two in the hierarchy and Baradar number three. When Obaidullah was arrested in Pakistan in early 2007, Baradar took over his role as the effective operational boss of the movement and head of the Leadership Shura (the Quetta Shura). (Obaidullah died in Pakistani custody in 2010, which was confirmed by the Taleban after they received information from Pakistani authorities in 2012)
Baradar is a highly experienced military commander and keen political strategist and played a major role in organising the insurgency in its formative years. Gopal reports, for example, that he was behind the original drawing up of a Taleban code of conduct, the Layha, (see AAN reporting here):
He understood that [this conflict] is about hearts and minds. He’s been a major push behind a lot of the insurgency’s efforts to clean up its act. He helped institute the complaints commissions, for instance and was also instrumental in streamlining and making more efficient the military structure.
Newsweek, in 2009, described him as able, cunning and responsible for the spike in Coalition casualties that year. Then, in February 2010, pretty well out of the blue, Baradar was arrested (reported as a joint CIA/ISI operation in Karachi). The timing – he had been been in Pakistan for most of the previous nine years – raised important questions (read AAN’s account of it here). What has become the most common explanation was that the Pakistani ISI was unhappy with contacts he had had with the Karzai government, reportedly with Karzai’s late half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who before his death was the most powerful man in the Afghan south (see here). (2)
His release has been a long demand of the Kabul government which says he will be useful in peace negotiations. No comment has yet been available from the Afghan ministry of foreign affairs, but High Peace Council member, Muhammad Ismail Qasimyar, told AAN today’s news was welcome. He said that,before his arrest, Baradar had shown he was very keen to “solve the problem between the government and the Taleban” and this was why he had been arrested. “We believe he has his own influence in the Taleban. He’s a mawlawi and has influence.” (See also here).
However, Qasimyar also said Baradar was seriously ill and would, he thought, be going abroad for medical treatment, rather than staying in Pakistan or coming to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s chief negotiator with Kabul, Sartaj Aziz, had earlier insisted that, although “obviously Karzai wanted him to go to Afghanistan,” Baradar would first be released into Pakistan, so that he could reconnect with the leadership and do what they want him to do.(3)
Where Baradar ends up is important. It is difficult to see him enjoying any sort of independent position, needed if he was to take part in negotiations, if he was in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Actually keeping tabs on where he is may be impossible for the outside world – but not, presumably, for the ISI – as it has been for the last tranche of reportedly released Taleban; they are now said to be “reunited with their families”, although to all intents and purposes, they have disappeared.
It is as yet unclear why Pakistan has decided to release Baradar now and whether he will be useful or even available for possible negotiations. After three years in the possibly not so gentle hands of the ISI, it is unclear who he will listen to or who he will represent and, indeed, what his position might still be within the movement. On the face of it, Pakistan has given the Afghan government what it has long asked for, but their release of Baradar could just as well be an attempt to regain control and reinsert Pakistan into the heart of any negotiations. Islamabad might see Baradar as a trump card who could be used to subvert any ‘peace process’, rather than kick start it. The unknowns about Baradar are so many – even as to whether his release is about reconciliation at all – that predictions of what might happen next are not yet possible.
(1) The Afghanistan Justice Project reported:
On August 3, 1999, a group of Taliban, acting under direct instructions from a senior commander [elsewhere named as Baradar], summarily executed a group of eleven captured personnel of the Bagram Airbase, at Bareek Ab in the Dasht Chirchirik plain. Victims had their hands tied and were under armed guard at the time of their execution. On the same day, also in the Bagram sector, Taliban troops also summarily executed two local barbers close to the airbase, and nine other prisoners, in the Dasht Chirchirik.
(2) Gopal, in his major report on the insurgency in Kandahar cited earlier, says Baradar, along with “at least six other senior Taleban leaders” made “approaches” to the government between 2006 and 2010.
(3) There have been rumours that the Afghan government, in agreement with Pakistan, wants to set up a new liaison office for such talks in Turkey or Saudi Arabia and that Baradar might play a role there (see here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020