Pakistan’s arrest of Mullah Baradar: tactics or strategy?

February 17, 2010

marjahThe arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi leaves big unanswered questions about why Pakistan chose to act now against a man credited with giving operational coherence to Afghan Taliban (or Quetta Shura Taliban) operations in Afghanistan.

The answers to those questions depend very much on the assumptions you start out with about what Pakistan is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. But for the sake of of argument, let’s take three  of them — that it is pushing the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda and enter negotiations on a political settlement; that it wants a stable Afghanistan, and that it is aiming to keep it free of Indian and Iranian influence.

TALKS

Mullah Baradar’s arrest would signal to other Taliban leaders, including the reclusive Mullah Muhammad Omar, that Pakistan is willing to flex its muscles to convince them to adopt a “reasonable” position in any negotiations, turn convincingly against al Qaeda, and ensure Pakistan’s interests are safeguarded in any attempt at a political settlement.

But this would be a high-risk gamble.  The warning implicit in Mullah Baradar’s arrest could just as  easily persuade other Taliban leaders that it is too risky to rise above the surface enough to engage in talks, and they might be better off lying low and waiting out U.S.-led troops until they begin to leave. 

It also removes from the scene a man who some argue could otherwise have been used as a go-between in any talks (see Thomas Ruttig at the Afghan Analysts Network for an interesting take on Mullah Baradar’s past links with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.) 

A STABLE AFGHANISTAN

Pakistan has said repeatedly that it wants a stable Afghanistan. It would be the first to suffer if Afghanistan descends into outright civil war after U.S.-led forces begin to leave. By extension it has an interest in seeing progress towards a political settlement before the 2011 timetable set by President Barack Obama for starting to draw down troops. Yet in removing a top commander — whose instructions to fighters in the field have turned out, at the very least, to be remarkably prescient – the risk is that an insurgency which is already highly decentralised, becomes even more fragmented. (Colin Cookman,  at the Center for American Progress, makes the case in a column on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel that Mullah Baradar’s arrest may rebound in unpredictable ways.) Trying to achieve a political settlement with a fragmented insurgency could be far harder than dealing with Taliban leaders, rather as Israel found when its old adversary Yasser Arafat was replaced by  competing Palestinian groups.

PAKISTAN’S SECURITY INTERESTS

Pakistan has long sought a reduction in India’s influence in Afghanistan, accusing it of using its growing presence there to create trouble within Pakistan itself  – a charge New Delhi denies.  And while Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has said  it does not want a “Talibanised” Afghanistan – Pakistan is far less sympathetic to the Taliban than it used to be after facing a wave of gun and bomb attacks from its own Pakistani Taliban — nor does it want a return of the Indian, Iranian and Russian influence which it accused of destabilising Afghanistan before 2001. (All three backed the then Northern Alliance which fought against the Taliban government which ruled in Kabul from 1996-2001.)

That brings you to the question of what price Pakistan was hoping to extract in cooperating with the United States in the arrest of Mullah Baradar.   As Joshua Foust argues at Registan.net, “President Obama and all his senior military leaders have been up front that America needed to ‘show some progress’ during this year or all bets would be off. There is a very real chance the U.S. traded something we’d normally consider a big deal to get Baradar for his symbolic significance.”

But in that case, what could the Americans offer?  The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan hold talks on Feb. 25 to try to find a way out of the diplomatic freeze which followed the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. But progress is expected to be slow, and unlikely to make any real breakthroughs in time for the 2011 deadline fixed by Obama for starting to draw down troops. And while the United States may have played a role in nudging India into talks, it does not have the leverage to force concessions — if it had that much clout, it would probably have got New Delhi and Islamabad negotiating months ago.

It’s impossible to see how the United States could have any influence at all on Iran’s policies towards Afghanistan given that Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads over its nuclear programme.

TACTICS VS STRATEGY

All that brings you to a final question. The Pakistan Army — and by extension the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — has sometimes been accused of being good at tactics, poor on strategy. So maybe trying to find the strategic implications of Mullah Baradar’s capture is to look in the wrong place. Perhaps this might just have been a tactical move to ease U.S. pressure — it has delivered individual leaders in the past; or for that matter Pakistan may just have seized an opportunity when it arose. Then again, shift the kaleidoscope a little bit and you might come up with another set of assumptions and questions.

(Update:  According to the LA Times, “the capture of Baradar was driven by a rare (US) intelligence break that enabled American spy agencies to pinpoint the Taliban military chief and help Pakistan’s intelligence service organize on short notice a daring operation to arrest him.” 

If confirmed, that would tip the scales towards this being driven by tactics rather than a rethinking of strategy.

It quotes a U.S. official as saying: ”It’s not just a matter of their motivation; it’s a matter of opportunity that we present. I don’t think it’s fair to say they decided they wanted to help us all of a sudden. We don’t get great opportunities at these guys all the time.”

(Photo: Afghan soldier stands in front of a gas storage facility set on fire by Taliban fighters in Marjah, Afghanistan/Goran Tomasevic)

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