NEW DELHI, and ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The Afghanistan Taliban’s chief military commander was captured in a joint operation between Pakistani and American spy agencies near Karachi.
Agents from the two countries nabbed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the Pakistani commercial capital of Karachi 10 days ago. News of his arrest broke Monday night. Mr. Baradar is said to be the Taliban’s No. 2, working underneath Mullah Omar as the organization’s top military commander for southern Afghanistan
In the past, Pakistan has rarely targeted Afghan Taliban leaders operating within its borders. Instead, Islamabad has focused on shutting down the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a faction that is at war with the Pakistani government.
But US-Pakistan relations have improved of late, with Pakistan feeding intelligence to the US drone assassination program operating inside the country and the US helping Pakistan kill its enemies in return.
A US drone strike in August smote Pakistan’s chief enemy, former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud. The arrest of Baradar appears to be reciprocal — a sort of reward to the US for its help in killing Mr. Mehsud.
“There is more intelligence sharing now than at any point in time in the last seven or eight years,” says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the department of defense and strategic studies at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “After Baitullah Mehsud’s killing it became quite clear that the Americans were willing to hit the TTP targets. Now the expectation was that the Afghan Taliban would be next.”
A Taliban spokesman, speaking to the Associated Press, denied Baradar had been captured, saying this was American propaganda to demoralize Taliban fighters in Marjah, Afghanistan. Over the weekend, the US and its Afghan allies launched their largest joint operation since 2001 against the Taliban stronghold.
Does it matter?
Analysts expressed some doubts that this will have a major impact on the Afghan battlefields. Such skepticism arises from the parade of Al Qaeda No. 2’s and TTP chiefs who have been killed or captured over the years in Pakistan — only to see them quickly replaced and the organizations spring back.
Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence consulting firm, wrote: “It is unlikely that a single individual would be the umbilical cord between the leadership council and the military commanders in the field, particularly a guerrilla force such as the Taliban.” The significance of the event, Stratfor argued, is that it points to the US and Pakistan “cooperating very closely.”
But, in fact, what’s new is who’s being targeted, not the fact of CIA involvement on Pakistani soil. Analysts in Pakistan say the Afghanistan Taliban have been put on notice that they will no longer enjoy relative freedom for their operatives inside Pakistan so long as they keep their guns focused on Afghanistan.
Deepening U.S. involvement
Earlier this month, an attack on a Pakistani paramilitary convoy killed three American soldiers and five others near a girls school in the north of the country.
The dead soldiers were among roughly 70 US special forces troops currently training Pakistani soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics as part of a $700 million military aid program in the current fiscal year. Pakistan Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Monitor then that the agreement between the US and Pakistani militaries, which he stressed is an open understanding between the two, has been productive.
Dr. Hussain sees evidence of closer intelligence sharing in the increasing number of US drone attacks within Pakistan, which are now frequently targeting senior Afghan Taliban leaders. Such attacks, says Hussain, are made possible by Pakistani intelligence.
Pakistan has also offered recently to broker peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
That offer stirred some traditional American suspicions about Pakistan, namely that Islamabad would insist on more influence over Kabul in exchange for its help. Also worrying to the US was the Pakistani military’s decision to shelve further offensives, particularly in the North Waziristan region which the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network uses as a base to launch attacks against the US in Afghanistan.
Hussain says the US has lately refrained from taking an accusatory tone with Pakistan, and reacted calmly over the North Waziristan decision. Partly that’s because the Pakistani military has moved a brigade into the region and is launching targeted search and destroy operations, he says.
On the Pakistani side, too, there remains some reticence.
“As far as the objectives of the US and Pakistan are concerned, they are not in total harmony in the region,” says Khalid Rahman, head of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. “People are not ready in Pakistan to delink Afghanistan with other issues in the region.”
Those other issues include the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, as well as the growing influence of India — encouraged by the US — within Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Afghan conflict has had negative impacts on Pakistan’s economy and stability with no acknowledgement of that sacrifice from the US, says Mr. Rahman. Pakistani leaders “cannot ignore that public opinion” is upset with America on these points, Rahman said.
Moves against the Afghan Taliban jeopardize Pakistani influence over a Taliban movement that it once helped spawn as a key plank in its foreign policy.
Pakistan has sought a controlling influence in the Afghan government and the Taliban represented their best chances. Under a decade’s old doctrine known as “strategic depth” Pakistan could use Afghanistan as a mountain redoubt if India ever launched a land invasion. Islamabad has also wanted its thumb on any Pashtun government in Kabul to prevent talk of a “Greater Afghanistan” that envisions unity with Pashtun people and lands in Pakistan.
A recent comment by General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s Army Chief, to reporters indicates that Pakistan — at least publicly — is revising this basic tenet of its foreign policy.
“We want to have strategic depth in Afghanistan, but that does not imply controlling it,” Kayani said. “If we have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, automatically we will have our strategic depth because our western border will be secure, and we will not be looking at two fronts.”
That’s a significant change, says Hussain: “Kayani is taking a more benign view of this, that we would like to have a stable, peaceful government in Afghanistan, whether that’s a Pashtun regime of a non-Pashtun regime.”