Can Mullah Baradar lead the Taliban to moderation?
In a remarkable twist of events the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan two decades after the conservative Islamic regime was ousted by American forces in 2001. It took just eleven days for the insurgents to sweep the entire country. With the fall of Kabul, the Taliban are poised to form a new government. The new dispensation has yet to take shape but there is growing anxiety over the prospect of the return of repressive authoritarian rule.
It may have been easy for the insurgents to take over the state but it will be extremely difficult to rule a divided country torn by decades of war. The restoration of the old-style harsh and obscurantist authoritarian rule cannot bring stability to the strife-torn country. There is certainly some indication of moderation in recent pronouncements from the Taliban leadership. But how real the change will be is not yet clear.
What gives some hope for change is that the current Taliban leadership appears more pragmatic than that which ruled from 1996 to 2001. It is more of a collective leadership unlike the absolute control wielded by Mullah Omar, the late supreme leader of the militia. Although Mullah Habitullah is the supreme leader, it’s his deputy Mullah Baradar who is the main face of the movement.
Known as a brilliant and charismatic military commander, Mullah Baradar led the Taliban talks with American representatives in Doha, which went on to produce the historic agreement that paved the way for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. A cofounder of the Taliban movement, he was a deputy to Mullah Omar.
Mullah Baradar is credited with rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Beside heading the Taliban’s military operations, he also ran the group’s leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura before his arrest in 2010 in a joint US-Pakistan operation. The Obama administration declared his arrest a “significant win,” and a “turning point” in its war in Afghanistan. At one point President Obama personally sent a message to Pakistani leaders that Mullah Baradar should not be released.
Mullah Baradar is credited with rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
He remained in Pakistan’s detention for almost nine years during which the Taliban insurgency swept across Afghanistan. His release came in 2019 when the US seriously pursued peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Among others, in the leadership council are five former inmates of Guantanamo who were also part of the Taliban delegation engaged in peace talks in Doha. They were released in 2014 in exchange for a US soldier held by the Taliban. Since then, they had been living in Doha. All of them had been close to Mullah Omar and held senior positions in the former Taliban government. They included Mullah Khairkhwa; Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Fazel Mazloom, Mullah Norullah Noori and Mohammad Nabi Omari.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar is another powerful figure in the movement. He emerged on Afghanistan’s insurgent landscape after it was confirmed that his father had died in 2013. The disclosure led to a fierce succession battle within the group and some powerful Taliban commanders backed Yaqoob to succeed his father. The bid failed. But two years later he was appointed deputy leader of the group as well as head of the military commission.
Anas Haqqani the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the insurgent group is another key figure in the Taliban hierarchy. He spent many years in a death cell in Kabul before he was released in 2019. While Mullah Baradar may be the most powerful person, it will be more of a collective decision-making process that will set the Taliban’s future policy direction.
Notwithstanding apparent moderation in the stance of the top leadership based in Doha, there is still the question of whether the outlook of the Taliban commanders on the ground has also changed. Many of them may be less amenable to change and would be more inclined to continue the hardline approach, particularly on social and women rights issues.
Moreover, the Taliban leadership will be dealing with a new generation of Afghan men and women who are better educated and aware of what’s happening around the world. It will be hard for the conservative movement to reverse the course of social change and take Afghanistan two decades back. There has certainly been some positive move from the Taliban leadership to calm down international fears. Yet the new dispensation will be required to alleviate the concerns over human rights issues, particularly equal rights for women to work and their access to education, in order to get recognition by the outside world.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.