'Second-in-command' to Mullah Omar captured

Afghan Taliban's military head under interrogation after joint operation between American and Pakistani intelligence services
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The Independent Online

The military head of the Afghan Taliban and the man considered second only to Mullah Omar in overall command of the militant network, has been captured in a secret raid jointly carried out by Pakistani and US operatives.

Officials said that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who oversaw military operations against Western forces across a swathe of Afghanistan, was seized in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. He is now reportedly being interrogated by Pakistani and US officials at an undisclosed location.

The Taliban yesterday denied the reports and said the announcement of his capture was nothing more than a propaganda stunt at a time when NATO forces were engaged in a major military offensive in southern Afghanistan, centred on the town of Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold. If confirmed, the capture of Baradar represents the most senior Taliban figure to have detained since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

“A large number of people have fled the NATO operation in Afghanistan and crossed into Pakistan. We have picked up many. We are investigating them and right now we cannot divulge their identity,” Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, told reporters when asked about the arrest of the Taliban leader.

Analysts said that while the capture of Baradar might represent a significant PR coup for the US, it is unlikely that his capture will have a lasting effect on the operational capability of the Taliban, which is known for its ability to quickly change and adapt. However, officials voiced hopes that his capture and subsequent questioning might lead to the seizing of other militant leaders and may even provide clues about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and the senior figures said to make up the “Quetta Shura”, the shadowy body which oversees and directs the Taliban’s operations.

The capture of Baradar, in a joint operation conducted by operatives from Pakistan’s ISI and the CIA, reportedly ten days ago, may underline increasingly closer cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the two countries as well as a shift in tactics from Pakistan.

Until now, Islamabad has resisted US pressure to target those militants responsible for carrying out cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, preferring instead to concentrate on those, such as the Mehsud tribe, responsible for a wave of violence inside Pakistan. Indeed, the US has repeatedly complained that many with the Pakistani military, which controls the ISI, still considered the Afghan Taliban a strategic asset that it wished to maintain close links with to counter US and Indian influence inside Afghanistan. Baradar was also said to have enjoyed a relationship with the ISI at some point.

“I think that you have to go back to 2003 and 2004 when Pakistan’s intelligence agencies cooperated with the US over the capture of a number of al-Qa’ida figures,” said defence analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi, referring to events such as the 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused over the 9-11 attacks.

Yet much about the capture of Baradar in the Baldia Town district of Karachi remains unclear and its timing will raise suspicions that it may be linked to efforts by the US and Nato to enter into talks with moderate Taliban fighters as a way of ending a increasingly costly and unpopular war. Pakistan is keen to secure a role as a leading interlocutor in any such talks.

“If Pakistani officials had wanted to arrest him, they could have done it at any time,” Sher Mohammad Akhud Zada, the former governor of Afghanistan’s Helmand province and a member of the country’s parliament, told the Associated Press. “Why did they arrest him now?”

Some analysts have suggested that Baradar, considered a “pragmatist”, may even have been open to negotiations, even though he denied such a suggestion in an email interview conducted last year with Newsweek magazine. “What would be the topic of the talks and what would be the result?” he said. “Our basic problem with the Americans is that they have attacked our country. They are offering talks, hoping that the mujahedin surrender before them. We see no benefit for the country and Islam in such kind of talks.”

The location of the Afghan leader’s capture, in a Karachi slum populated by Pashtuns, has drawn fresh attention to the importance of Pakistan’s largest city within the broader geography of the Taliban. The city of at least 16m has the largest population of Pashtuns, of which the Taliban fighters are overwhelmingly drawn from, anywhere in the world.

As such analysts have said that Karachi has largely avoided the sort of Taliban violence suffered by other Pakistani cities and has been the favoured “R&R” location for many fighters. It is understood that Karachi may also been a meeting place for the Quetta Shura, which in all likelihood also convenes at several locations across Baluchistan and elsewhere in Pakistan.

His capture also creates new, difficult questions that Pakistan will now have to answer. The authorities have always denied that any members of the Afghan Taliban were based inside the country and insisted that they, along with al-Qa’ida figures such as Osama bin Laden, operated from inside Afghanistan. That will now be a much harder argument to make.

Right-hand man: Mullah Baradar

As head of the Taliban's military council, Baradar coordinates the Taliban's military operations across a large swathe of south and south-west of Afghanistan. He has direct control over Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces. The 42-year-old was apparently elevated to the council after the death of the previous leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Usmani, who was killed in a US airstrike in 2006.

According to Interpol records, Baradar, who was born in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, served as the Taliban's deputy defence minister prior to the regime's ousting as a result of the US-led invasion. During the fighting he had overseen the defence of the northern region of the country. Some reports say that at one point he was captured by warlords in the pay of the US, but he managed to escape.

It is said that the secretive Mullah Omar conveyed all his military and political messages to field commanders in Afghanistan through Baradar, who, like Omar, fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Some reports say Baradar, a nickname which means "brother" and underlines his close relationship with Omar, is charismatic and charming. One anecdote claims that he and Omar once challenged each other to a traditional Afghan contact sport which involved hopping on one leg. Apparently Omar won that contest after securing a higher bit of ground from which he was able to make a lunge for his trusted lieutenant.

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