Monday, March 15, 2010

News from the AP tonight that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban second-in-command who was captured by the ISI with U.S. support several weeks ago, was deep in secret negotiations with the Afghan government.  At the time of his arrest, the news seemed to portend an abrupt about-face in Pakistan’s strategy.  It was hailed as a signal that Islamabad was reordering its strategic priorities, and would finally become an honest partner to the U.S. in fighting Islamic extremists.

Now that assertion sounds hollow and na├»ve. 

I greeted the news of his capture with a healthy dose of skepticism, unable to believe that the ISI would reorient itself so quickly and decisively.  The story didn’t quite make sense.  If this AP story is true, and it certainly appears to be, all the pieces now fall into place.

Mullah Baradar was engaged with President Karzai in secret backchannel negotiations.  Since he is well known as a “moderate” amongst the Taliban, it is entirely plausible that these were good faith negotiations aimed to bring about a real peace.  However, as a “moderate,” Mullah Baradar’s position was probably not in tune with most of his Taliban colleagues. 

Furthermore, reconciliation between the Taliban and the Karzai government would produce one major loser – Pakistan. 
The Taliban was, and is, Islamabad’s primary means for influencing events Afghanistan.  If they put down arms and joined any sort of coalition with President Karzai, Pakistan would lose their strategic partner and the majority of their power.

So, by engaging in talks, Mullah Baradar alienated his fellow Taliban and threatened his Pakistani underwriters.  It was clearly in Pakistan’s interest to squash the peace talks, and arresting him neatly accomplished that goal.

And what of the United States?  Joshua Foust reads this as the U.S. undermining the peace process.  In his words, the U.S. “stabbed our host government in the back and told the remaining senior Taliban that should they ever wish to negotiate or participate in peace talks, we will arrest and torture them.”

I disagree with his analysis.  I don’t see why the U.S. would sacrifice negotiations in return for the capture of Baradar.  I don’t think his value as an intelligence source is that significant and I believe the U.S. is more savvy about the long-term prospects for peace in the region.  Instead, I think Occam’s razor should apply here.  The U.S. was not a party to a shady backroom deal; it was the chump on the corner unaware that a deal was happening.  The U.S. simply got played, once again, by the ISI.

The big winner here is Pakistan – they protected their strategic allies, thumbed their noses at Karzai, and even managed to win brownie points from the clueless Americans for bringing in a highly valued target.  And the losers?  Karzai, the U.S., and most importantly, the Afghani people.


Patrick Elliot said...

Very interesting article and analysis. I have a feeling this story isn't over yet. And if it IS over, that would be a giant mis-service on the part of the media.

Beau said...

Great post, Dave. On Foust's analysis - I agree that he's probably wrong on the US's motivation, but I think he's right about it undermining the prospects for any meaningful political settlement with the Taliban. I'd imagine it's pretty gutsy as an individual member of the Taliban to engage in (even secret) talks with the Karzai Government or US Forces, and I'd say this provides an even stronger disincentive to that behavior.

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