The Afghan authorities confirmed on Tuesday reports that the Taliban’s second-in-command, Mullah Baradar, has been arrested in Pakistan. But while the West considers the capture of such a ‘big fish’ a strategic victory, our correspondent points out that he was also the key to a possible diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Less than two months ago three Afghans accompanied me on a secret mission to Deh Rawod, Uruzgan’s second largest town. We set out in two old Toyotas without revealing our plans to anyone and without speaking about the trip on the phone. Treachery is everywhere in this country. The only people who knew of our journey were relatives who could offer us shelter along the way.
My Afghan driver was flustered when he began talking about the Taliban leader Mullah Baradar. We had taken every precaution and the second car travelled behind us. We let other vehicles travel in front of us before entering Deh Rawod in order to avoid roadside bombs.
Members of the same tribe
My Afghan colleague asked: “Do you know that you are about to ask some very troublesome questions?” I knew they were quite awkward. I was attempting to discover more about the secret relationship between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban’s operational leader. It is a story which began in Deh Rawod.
President Karzai’s closest allies live in the shadow of the Dutch Camp Hadrian. Mullah Baradar knows them all. Both leaders belong to the same tribe, the Popolzai.
Saved his life
President Karzai started to ask for Mullah Baradar's help in 2001. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Americans helped Karzai take control of ‘his’ region in Uruzgan from the Taliban. By talking and negotiating he convinced one tribal leader after another to support him.
When Karzai found himself in a life-threatening situation while in the Durji mountains he was rescued by Mullah Baradar, who was then the Taliban’s defence minister. In exchange, Karzai agreed not to punish Mullah Baradar for his role as a Taliban leader. Karzai assured him that he had nothing to worry about and that the Taliban would later be allowed to participate in the government. However things turned out differently. United States forces bombed Baradar’s house in Deh Rawod in spite of Karzai’s objections. Mullah Baradar fled the country and began operating in neighbouring Pakistan.
In Deh Rawod, our hosts closed the doors before we started talking. Everyone knew that Mullah Baradar was still on the West’s most-wanted list and associating with the Taliban is dangerous. However when I mentioned that I had spoken to President Karzai about his relationship with Mullah Baradar, our hosts lost their reservations. They explained that President Karzai’s influence is still strong here. And the same holds true for Mullah Baradar.
I had already heard in Kabul that there was contact between the two sides. Here, tribal contacts are more important than ideology. The Popolzai are more loyal to their own tribe than they are to the regime in Kabul or to the Taliban. One of my hosts told me that Mullah Baradar had been in Deh Rawod three months earlier thanks to the support of the Karzai network. When I attempted to dig deeper the man stopped talking, saying he had to go to a wedding and left.
Travelling in Afghanistan
One tribal leader from the region told me that Mullah Baradar travelled freely in Afghanistan. He passed Canadian and Dutch soldiers while travelling in an old car between the Pakistan border and his native town. He did this by ensuring that members of his tribe and people loyal to him would secure his safe passage as he made the trips.
After my return to Kabul I heard that after a visit to Deh Rawod, Mullah Baradar travelled to Kabul for talks with President Karzai. Informed sources in Kabul told me that Mullah Baradar would be the best-placed person to help the government with its plans to reach a peaceful agreement with the Taliban. President Karzai’s contacts with Mullah Baradar would enable him to reach the inner circles of the Taliban leadership.
Gain or loss?
Sources within Western intelligence agencies say that Mullah Baradar was previously in Dubai for talks. Others say that President Karzai sometimes ensured that Mullah Baradar was able to cross the border, while the mullah at times did the president a favour.
This morning I was awoken by a phone call informing me that Mullah Baradar had been arrested. Many analysts consider this positive news. This will weaken the Taliban and is clearly a military success. However this is a short-term gain. But what does it mean for Kabul’s ambitious plans to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban? After all, wasn’t Mullah Baradar the key to peace in Afghanistan?