ISI May Have Check-mated CIAFebruary 25, 2010
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s arrest of the top Taliban military commander may be a tactical victory for the United States, but it is also potentially a strategic coup for Pakistan, officials and analysts here and in Afghanistan said.
Pakistan has removed a key Taliban commander, enhanced cooperation with the United States and ensured a place for itself when parties explore a negotiated end to the Afghan war.
The arrest followed weeks of signals by Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — to NATO officials, Western journalists and military analysts — that Pakistan wanted to be included in any attempts to mediate with the Taliban.
Even before the arrest of the Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Pakistani intelligence official expressed irritation that Pakistan had been excluded from what he described as American and Afghan approaches to the Taliban.
“On the one hand, the Americans don’t want us to negotiate directly with the Taliban, but then we hear that they are doing it themselves without telling us,” the official said in an interview. “You don’t treat your partners like this.”
Mullah Baradar had been a important contact for the Afghans for years, Afghan officials said. But Obama administration officials denied that they had made any contact with him.
Whatever the case, with the arrest of Mullah Baradar, Pakistan has effectively isolated a key link to the Taliban leadership, making itself the main channel instead.
“We are after Mullah Baradar,” the Pakistani intelligence official said in an interview three weeks ago. “We strongly believe that the Americans are in touch with him, or people who are close to him.”
The official said the American action of excluding Pakistan from talks with the Afghan Taliban was making things “difficult.”
“You cannot say that we are important allies and then you are negotiating with people whom we are hunting and you don’t include us,” he said.
An American official in Washington who has been briefed on the arrest denied that there had been negotiations with the Taliban commander or that Pakistani intelligence engineered the arrest to ensure a role in negotiations. “That’s a conspiracy theory to which I give no credit, because it’s just not true,” the official said.
But whether or not that was Pakistan’s intention, it may be the effect.
The Taliban are longtime Pakistani allies in Afghanistan, and Pakistan has signaled its interest in preserving influence there.
Though the Obama administration has been divided on whether and how to deal with the Taliban, the Pakistani move could come at the expense of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and complicate reconciliation efforts his government has begun.
An American intelligence official in Europe conceded as much, while also acknowledging Mullah Baradar’s key role in the reconciliation process. “I know that our people had been in touch with people around him and were negotiating with him,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
“So it doesn’t make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us,” the official added. “And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say.”
The arrest comes at a delicate time, when the Taliban are in a fierce internal debate about whether to negotiate for peace or fight on as the United States prepares to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year.
He is one of the most senior military figures in the Taliban leadership who is close to the overall Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and has been one of the main Taliban conciliators, Afghan officials said.
It has been clear from interviews recently with commanders and other members of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan that the notion of talks has divided the Taliban, but more and more want negotiations.
Some hard-liners are arguing to continue the fight. But in recent weeks the balance has been increasingly toward making peace, according to Hajji Muhammad Ehsan, a member of the Kandahar provincial council.
Officials in Kandahar, the former base of the Taliban government, have some of the closest links to the Taliban leadership, who are mostly from southern Afghanistan and are now living across the border in Pakistan.
“He was the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations,” said Hajji Agha Lalai, former head of the government-led reconciliation process in the city of Kandahar, who has dealt with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years.
He and other officials in Afghanistan who are familiar with the Taliban leadership said Mullah Baradar’s arrest by Pakistani intelligence, and his interrogation by Pakistani intelligence officers and American agents, could play out in two ways. Mullah Baradar might be able to persuade other Taliban to give up the fight. Or if he is perceived to be mistreated, that could end any hopes of wooing other Taliban.
“Mullah Brother can create change in the Taliban leadership, if he is used in mediation or peace-talking efforts to convince other Taliban to come over, but if he is put in jail as a prisoner, we don’t think the peace process will be productive,” said Hajji Baridad, a tribal elder from Kandahar.
The Afghan government did not react to the news of Mullah Baradar’s arrest, an indication that it was upset at Pakistan’s action. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the president, who has held indirect contacts with Mullah Baradar in the past, welcomed his arrest as serving a “death blow” to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.
“We value the help of Pakistani officials in helping to arrest Mullah Baradar. This is actually a positive step, and we hope they will continue this kind of contribution,” he said.
But the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who has led efforts on behalf of President Karzai to persuade the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war, attacked Pakistan’s action as destroying all chances of reconciliation with the rest of the Taliban leadership.
“If it’s really true, it could seriously affect negotiations and can gravely affect the peace process,” he said, speaking in Kabul, where he has resided since his release from the prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba several years ago. “It would destroy the fragile trust built between both sides and will not help with the peace process.”
Carlotta Gall reported from Islamabad, and Souad Mekhennet from Frankfurt. Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Sangar Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan; and Scott Shane from Washington.