Mullah Baradar: From prisoner to peacemaker
In what could be termed as one of the great ironies of history, the man who spent nine years in incarceration for his role with the Taliban, is now America’s biggest hope to help bring an end to its longest war. A co-founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, Mullah Baradar’s role is seen as critical in efforts to end the 18-year war.
At the end of the ninth round of peace talks between the US and Taliban in Doha last week, America’s chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the two sides were on “the threshold of an agreement.”
The agreement is expected to set a timeline for the phased withdrawal of American troops and to open a path for direct negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan officials over the country’s political future. Despite the escalation in Taliban attacks in recent days, the two sides seem closest to a deal. This optimism is also shared by the Taliban, though there are still many obstacles on the road to peace in Afghanistan.
The very fact that the Americans are now negotiating their withdrawal plan with the group their forces had ousted from power almost 18 years ago tells the story of a war gone wrong. Even if the world’s greatest military power believes that it has not lost the war, it has surely not won it either. The Americans are now sitting across the table with the same men they incarcerated and declared militants.
Mullah Baradar, who was in Pakistan’s custody for almost nine years, was released last year at the request of the US, in order to allow him to participate in peace talks. He was captured in February 2010, in a joint CIA-ISI raid outside Karachi. At the time, the Obama administration described the arrest of the Taliban’s second-in-command as a “turning point” in the Afghan war. He remained in confinement as the Taliban insurgency swept across the country.
That long confinement seems to have increased respect for Baradar among the Taliban commanders. After the death of Mullah Omar, he is the de facto leader of the group and his presence in negotiations has given greater authority to the Taliban delegation.
Among others, five former inmates of Guantanamo Bay detention camp are part of the same Taliban delegation now engaged in peace talks with the men who put them in the camp. They were released in 2014, in exchange for an American soldier held by the Taliban. Since then, they have been living in Doha.
The US-Taliban talks have made significant progress, but there is still a long way to go before peace can return to Afghanistan.
All of them had been close to Mullah Omar and they came out of the shadows to join the negotiating team when the Trump administration decided to hold direct talks with the Taliban.
Their inclusion in the team was also meant to send a message to Washington. Khalilzad has described their presence in the talks as “more authoritative,” and tweeted that this could be “a significant moment” in the talks.
Thirteen years of imprisonment do not seem to have diminished their resolve. There is, so far, no sign of bitterness about what they went through at the American detention camp. One of the Guantanamo returnees who is now part of the Taliban delegation was quoted as saying that the two sides at least shared a common interest in ending the war.
Surely, each person representing the Taliban in the negotiations has a story to tell, of being in power and then their lives in detention. But Baradar has played a much greater role in building the insurgency, notwithstanding his long period in detention. His elevation to the top rung of the Taliban leadership indicates the influence he wields, particularly among the fighters.
Known as a brilliant and charismatic military commander, Baradar has been credited for rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force and running the group’s day-to-day affairs after the fall of Daesh. Besides heading the Taliban’s military operations, he ran the group’s leadership council, also known as the Quetta Shura.
Although he seldom participates in the larger meetings between the two sides, his presence there helps clear the roadblocks. Whenever there is an indication of talks breaking down, Khalilzad calls on him and the problem is largely sorted out. His health however, seems to have been sapped after nearly a decade of detention.
The US-Taliban talks have made significant progress, but there is still a long way to go before peace can return to the war-torn country. Decades of conflict have exacted a severe toll on the lives of millions of Afghans and wrought destruction which cannot be ended easily even if the two sides reach an agreement.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.