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.


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.) 


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 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, “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.


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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@TALKS: This is unhelpful for the talks with the Taliban; does not bring Taliban any closer to the table.

@A STABLE AFGHANISTAN: Can Pakistan help US/NATO to dominate Taliban, if that is the strategy given 30K more troops. I doubt (1) Pakistan willing to do so (2) the feasibility of defeating Taliban happening. I know Kayani said Pakistan does not want Talibanized Afghanistan. But that is lip service. No idea of this. May be it happened because US happened to have the intelligence leading to the arrest–but just for symbolic significance. What kind of symbolism it is if this does nothing for the solution. That is being desperate.

“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.”
–Why do you say that “Pakistan is far less sympathetic to the Taliban than it used to be”? There is no basis other than Kayani’s statement which cannot be construed as an evidence. Thus far the argument has been in favor of Pakistan saving Af-Taliban.

Perhaps this is just a random information that led to this and is not part of any strategy. Will neither help talks with Taliban nor is big enough to dream of winning over taliban.

Either this is;

1. “If confirmed, that would tip the scales towards this being driven by tactics rather than a rethinking of strategy.”, as you said.
2. There is something behind the scenes going on. Obama wants something to show and is desperate, however meaningless. But at what price is a million $$$ Qn. India-Pak talks does not seem to be a good explanation unless that means US pressed India to offer talks and allowed Pakistan’s terrorist groups like JuD/LeT to give anti-India statements. But what is India’s gain in the deal if it has everything to lose.

How do we know Taliban has denied the talks? if that is so, this will make some sense.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

It is well known that President Karzai has been negotiating with his fello Pustu Mullah Biradhar who was captured by Pak security forces in Karachi. Having been watching Pak actions for last 25 years it is very plausible that they did this to sabotage these talks because they do not want to be sidelined in any future settlement. Pushtus on both sides of the Durand line distrusts Punjabi dominated Pak security forces and would easily have settled with Karzai and US but for the tight control Pak army holds on them.

Posted by vdhar | Report as abusive



A couple of stories you might like to read (if you have not already done so)

Abdul Salam Zaeef says here that Baradar’s arrest will be bad for talks: Taliban_Military_Leaders_Capture_Deepens  /1961093.html

And Le Nouvel Obs had an interesting story in December on Baradar’s past efforts at talks: 6


I’ve heard other people too saying that Pakistan does not want a Talibanised Afghanistan. The problem is how to get a “neutral” Afghanistan that secures Pakistani interests without either creating such a Taliban resurgence that it inspires Islamist hardliners in Pakistan, or having a renewed and destabilising civil war next door.

Agree with you on the random nature of this event. We all may be reading far too much into it in looking for some kind of grand masterplan. I’ve not seen or heard any evidence of the kind of coherence of either operational or political thinking it would take to fit this into an overall long-term strategy for Afghanistan.


As I said, even if the United States pressed India to offer talks, it could not force it to make concessions. The best it could do would be to try to ease some of the worst misunderstandings on both sides by acting as a go-between and that it almost certainly has done. But that would hardly be enough to engineer a change of strategy in Pakistan.

Finally, not sure I understand your question – how do we know the Taliban has denied talks. Can you explain?

Posted by Myra.MacDonald | Report as abusive


Thanks for the article links. Quite detailed articles.

It appears that the possibility for insurgents entering the political process and have negotiations with Karzai govt has been happening for sometime.

Let me rephrase my question: “How do we know that efforts (of Karzai and other middlemen and interested parties) to have taliban enter political settlement with Karzai govt participate in the Afghan political process have failed?” There is lot happening behind the scenes and lots of speculation. But I feel that Baradar arrest solves nothing and adds to the problem.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Mullah Baradar might well be an ISI ‘guest’ under protective custody, only his ‘arrest’ maybe announced now. It is a stark contrast and can be interpreted in opposite ways, maybe Pakistan wants to be seen as a partner and is raising the stakes. Pakistan Military officials have complained that they were left out by US officials in Afghan policy reviews and the upcoming political settlement. Pakistan is now delivering, telling the US that it is a willing partner ready to do business and competent enough to deliver on ‘high value targets’. Recent reports say another two ‘shadow governors’ of Taliban have been arrested and one of them from settled city of Faisalabad far from the tribal areas. I would say these guys were already ISI guests all these years and their arrests are announced now.
All in all looks like since Pakistan military has expanded links with NATO and the high command frequently visits Brussells finally Pakistan Army is sharpening its strategy along with its tactical skills.
Bottom line all is well that ends well, each event must result in a positive outcome. Mullah Baradar is not being sent to Guantanamo bay, he is under ‘interrogation’ in Pakistan. He can still negotiate, and also this time Pakistan might not support Taliban openly. Last time DG ISI went personally to Kandahar and met Mullah Omar and advise him to avoid impending US attack but to no avail. This time ISI will make sure what is advised to Taliban leadership they get it straight in their heads. And also Taliban must have grown little wise too.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

@Mullah Baradar might well be an ISI ‘guest’ under protective custody, only his ‘arrest’ maybe announced now. It is a stark contrast and can be interpreted in opposite ways, maybe Pakistan wants to be seen as a partner and is raising the stakes”

Umair: Do other Talibans interpret the way you do. If not, this all is counterproductive.

Goin back to Myra’s Qn, this all is tactic not strategy.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive

Looks like there was no tactics or strategy involved. The recent article in NY Times shows that Pakistanis acted on a tip provided by the Americans that there was going to be a meeting by some senior Taliban members. Based on this tip the Pakistanis raided the place and saw no resistance. Only after sometime did they realize that they had the second in command of the Taliban itself in the group. asia/19intel.html?hpw

Quoting from the article:

American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications saying militants with a possible link to the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were meeting. Tipped off by the Americans, Pakistani counterterrorist officers took several men into custody, meeting no resistance.

Only after a careful process of identification did Pakistani and American officials realize they had captured Mullah Baradar himself, the man who had long overseen the Taliban insurgency against American, NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.

New details of the raid indicate that the arrest of the No. 2 Taliban leader was not necessarily the result of a new determination by Pakistan to go after the Taliban, or a bid to improve its strategic position in the region. Rather, it may be something more prosaic: “a lucky accident,” as one American official called it. “No one knew what they were getting,” he said.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

With the arrest of Mullah Baradar and the quick heal to the recent judicial issue, are we looking at a new dawn?

The political and military forces are forging a new alliance which is healthy for the development and revitalization of Pakistan.  It is time for the PML-N league to stop waiting for the removal of a third-term Prime Minister ban and play the role of a vibrant and healthy opposition.  As the leading party of the opposition, it is crucial that the N-league provides positive criticism in order to hold the government accountable.  Gone are the days when we play personal politics and make decisions based on ego.  The retraction of the executive order should be a wakeup call for Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain that ego has no role in politics anymore for if no one else, the Pakistani public is ready to hold all players accountable.

Posted by AHR | Report as abusive

[…] flexed its muscles earlier this year by arresting Taliban commander  Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar outside Karachi, signalling to other insurgent  leaders, including Mullah Omar, that they could not take for […]

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