What is behind the release of Mulla Baradar?
Pakistan released the senior Afghan Taliban figure Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on October 24 after holding him in custody for more than eight years.
The 50-year old former deputy chief of the Taliban armed group was arrested near Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, on February 8, 2010, in a raid conducted by Pakistani security agents. Pakistan didn’t confirm reports that the US played a role in his capture.
Pakistan has yet to issue a statement about Baradar’s release, but the Taliban confirmed the news and said he had joined his family. No details were provided on where he was freed or about his next destination. Earlier reports said Baradar was released in Karachi. It is almost certain he is still in Pakistan.
As the Taliban statement claimed Baradar was in good health, the Afghan, Pakistan and the US governments would be hoping that he will become active in facilitating the peace process in the near future. However, we must keep in mind that Baradar has been away from the scene of action for years and will take time to get updated on the current situation. The Taliban leadership, too, would like to know whether his views have changed during imprisonment and if he is capable of playing an important role in the current situation.
It is unclear if Baradar was freed under certain terms that could restrict his movements and restrain him from playing an active role in the Taliban affairs. This reminds us of the restrictions placed on the five important Taliban commanders who were released by the US from its Guantanamo prison on June 1, 2014, in exchange for the captured American soldier Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. They were sent to Qatar with the provision that they won’t be able to travel for a year. For reasons that are unclear, all five are still staying in Doha, Qatar’s capital, where Taliban Political Commission is based.
Baradar’s arrest was a big setback to the Taliban as he was virtually running single-handedly the armed group’s affairs and organizing the insurgency against the US-led Nato and Afghan forces. Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar was largely underground and Baradar, as his deputy, was the group’s de facto leader.
The US statement on Baradar’s release was meaningful as it pointed out that this was the fulfillment of a long-standing Kabul demand to help facilitate the peace process.
A similar situation had arisen earlier in March 2007 when the then Taliban deputy chief Mulla Obaidullah was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Quetta. His capture briefly disrupted Taliban military operations before Baradar took his place and revived the insurgency. Obaidullah wasn’t freed amid unconfirmed reports that he died in custody.
Baradar was one of the handful of fighters who attended the Taliban’s first meeting, called by Mulla Omar in Singesar village in Kandahar province in the autumn of 1994. He was primarily a fighter, leading the Taliban as they captured one town after another from the possession of the fractious Afghan mujahideen groups. He rose to high positions as a leading Taliban commander and also served as governor of a province during Taliban rule.
It is interesting that both Taliban and the Afghan government had been demanding Baradar’s release. The Taliban used their contacts with Pakistan to lobby for his release. The Afghan government wanted Baradar freed because it considered him as someone powerful and amenable to moving the peace process forward. Both President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani sought his release, but Pakistan didn’t agree, even though it released more than 40 other prominent Taliban figures on Karzai’s request as he wanted to hold peace talks with them. However, none of those freed agreed to talk to the Karzai government, in keeping with the Taliban position that they would hold peace talks only with the US, because Kabul was powerless to take decisions about the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. It is said the US, too, was opposed to Baradar’s release at the time.
The situation has now changed as the US has accepted Taliban demands by holding two rounds of direct peace talks with its representatives in Qatar in July and October. The US statement on Baradar’s release was meaningful as it pointed out that this was the fulfillment of a long-standing Kabul demand to help facilitate the peace process. There has been intense speculation about the reason for his release.
It is interesting that Baradar was freed less than two weeks after the Qatar meeting between a US delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the new special envoy for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, and Taliban Political Commission. It is possible the US finally gave the go-ahead to Pakistan to release Baradar after consulting the Afghan government.
Though many in Kabul believe Baradar was arrested by Pakistan as he was willing to hold peace talks with the Afghan government, bypassing Islamabad, it is difficult to envisage the former deputy head of Taliban group taking a position at variance with the views of both the Taliban leadership and rank and file.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst of Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1