March Issue 2010
Change in Strategy
The Pakistan government to date has admitted the arrest of only one Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, on its soil and, that too, after an unexplained delay. In fact, a military spokesman belatedly conceded this fact when it was no longer possible to deny it following reports in the US media that Baradar had been captured near Karachi in a joint raid by American and Pakistani intelligence operatives.
Subsequently, sections of the US media, quoting unnamed government officials, the Afghan authorities and unidentified Western diplomats, started saying that several top Taliban figures have been captured in Pakistan. One could sense excitement in their ranks due to their understanding that more than half of the 15-member Taliban Leadership Council, or Quetta Shura as it is often called, was now in custody and the remaining were on the run. They were hoping that the arrest of top Taliban leaders would paralyse the organisation, disrupt the flow of arms and money to its fighters in Afghanistan and lead to demoralisation in its ranks. In their view, this would provide an opportunity to the US-led Nato forces, now in the midst of a major offensive in Helmand and preparing for another one in the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar, to go for the kill.
The silence of Pakistan’s civil and military authorities was meaningful and somewhat mysterious. Even the normally talkative Interior Minister Rehman Malik, was quiet. It seems he has learnt his lesson after giving categorical statements on crucial issues relating to the military operations against the militants and being proved wrong a number of times. Only recently, he first denied Baradar’s capture, termed media reports to this effect as part of the propaganda against Pakistan and stressed that no Afghan Taliban or Al-Qaeda leaders were hiding in Pakistan. After the statement by the military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas about Baradar’s arrest, the interior minister followed suit and even said Pakistan could consider handing him over to the Afghan government.
Despite Islamabad’s silence on the issue and lack of confirmation from other sources, there is some evidence that a number of Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan have been arrested. Taliban field commanders and members were privately saying that they had lost contact with some of the arrested men. They complained that the detained Taliban leaders were no longer able to call them or receive their calls. They felt this was evidence that some of the Afghan Taliban leaders and commanders were in detention. Though some of the Taliban officials were subsequently claiming to have re-established contact with a few of the detained men, this was not being confirmed by their other colleagues.
Two weeks before Baradar’s capture, one Younas Akhundzada, believed to be an important Taliban figure, was reportedly detained. In fact, Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban ‘shadow’ governor for the northern Kunduz province, and Mullah Mir Mohammad, the ‘shadow’ governor for the neighbouring Baghlan province, were taken into custody by Pakistani authorities even before Baradar’s arrest and not afterward as is being generally reported. The two men were reportedly held in Nowshera in NWFP a week prior to Baradar’s arrest. Reports that information obtained from Baradar as a result of his interrogation led to the capture of the two ‘shadow’ governors weren’t true. Also, the Taliban have appointed ‘shadow’ governors in almost 32 out of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan and, therefore, the arrest of two of them wasn’t considered something significant.
However, the subsequent arrest of Mullah Abdul Kabir, the head of the Taliban organisation for the four eastern Afghanistan provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan was fairly significant. He ranked high in the Taliban hierarchy, having served as deputy prime minister in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. He had also been governor of Nangarhar and Logar provinces during the Taliban rule and was known for his close association with Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban decision-making shura, or council. If Mullah Kabir has indeed been detained and put out of business, it would affect Taliban military operations and fund-raising capabilities in the strategic eastern provinces, particularly in Kunar and Nuristan, where they are strong and in a position to pose a constant threat to the foreign forces and the weak Afghan government.
It is still unclear if the arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan marked a shift in Islamabad’s hitherto ambivalent policy. Pakistan would probably wait and see as to how the situation evolves in Afghanistan before making up its mind and opting to cut all links to the Mullah Omar-led Taliban. That stage hasn’t come yet and, therefore, one could visualise an interim policy under which some links with the Afghan Taliban are maintained and at the same time certain leaders of the movement and in particular the ones who are more independent and difficult to control are detained.
There isn’t much weight in the suggestion that the arrests were part of Pakistan’s strategy to persuade and even force the Afghan Taliban leadership to agree to talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai and his principal supporters in the West. The Taliban would never negotiate under duress and their rank and file would rebel if some of their leaders are coerced or tempted to negotiate a peaceful solution through a deal with the Afghan government. Pakistan has been frequently offering its services to bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiation table, even though President Karzai and his allies in the US and other Western countries were keen for Saudi Arabia to lead the peace process involving the Taliban.
The arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan would in a way strengthen Islamabad’s hands and show to the world that it is capable of playing a major role in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan would link its support to such an endeavour once its concerns including the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and the future shape of the government in Kabul and its policies are adequately addressed. It is obvious that the Taliban resistance against foreign forces in Afghanistan would be affected if the movement’s leaders were denied sanctuaries in Pakistan and some of those now in its custody were delivered to the Afghan government. However, the Taliban are unlikely to surrender or make peace with Karzai and the foreign forces due to prodding or pressure from Pakistan. They would keep their own interests supreme rather than making a deal for the sake of Pakistan.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.