For quite some time the US-led international community expected Pakistan to demonstrate its sincerity in the war against al Qaeda and Taliban being fought on the Afghan soil since October 7, 2001, when the first US bombers first began knocking off strategic installations in Kabul.
Despite former President Pervez Musharraf’s repeated public commitment to the anti-terror war, the US military and intelligence establishment remained wary of its Pakistani interlocutors – the military and the mighty Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency for long-standing complicity with Afghanistan’s anti-US-Nato Taliban groups.
Until late last year, suspicions kept falling, particularly on the ISI for allegedly protecting Afghan Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar, Gulbadin Hekmetyar and Sarajuddin Haqqani, the eldest son of veteran jihadist leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.
But the arrests of nine Taliban militants linked to al-Qaeda from near the port city of Karachi after Pakistani intelligence officials got hold of the Afghan Taliban’s number two Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on February 16 appear to indicate a turn-around.
Baradar, known as Taliban’s master strategist, Pakistani army and intelligence officials claimed, from the port city of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. Some sources, however, insist the arrest had taken place several days earlier in Balochistan, the Pakistani southwestern province that shares about 1360 km border with Afghanistan.
Among others arrested, probably on tip-offs by Baradar, were Ameer Muawiya, a bin Laden associate responsible for foreign al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan’s border areas, and Akhunzada Popalzai, also known as Mohammad Younis, a former Taliban shadow governor in Zabul province and ex- police chief in Kabul.
Others captured in Karachi included Hamza, a former Afghan army commander in Helmand province during Taliban rule, Abu Riyad al Zarqawi, a liaison with Chechen and Tajik militants in Pakistan’s border area, Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mohammad, former shadow governors for Kunduz province and Baghlan province respectively.
The arrests of over a dozen key Taliban commanders not only came as a surprise to that critical so far of Pakistan’s “tolerance for Afghan Taliban,” but also amount to a serious blow to the insurgency in Afghanistan and are significant in many ways. Regardless of where Baradar was picked up and to what extent did his information lead to the arrests of many other al Qaeda and Taliban associates, and what motives did Pakistan have in going after the people who have been a headache for the entire international community, the development is significant in many ways.
Firstly, the US intelligence currently exudes a sense of vindication as it has been extensively implying the metaphor of “Quetta Shura of Taliban “ to suggest Afghan Taliban leaders have been present in the Balochistan province, of which Quetta is the capital.
Secondly, Baradar is not the first Taliban stalwart to fall in the hands of Pakistani or US authorities; it was either the ISI or the combination of the ISI-CIA that led to the killing of key commanders Mullah Dadullah and Akhter Mohammad Osmani in 2006. Even the 2007 arrest of Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taliban defense minister and Baradar’s predecessor, was apparently the target of a joint operation, not different from those that had in 2003 resulted, for instance, in the arrests of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 alleged mastermind, and Abu Zubaida, another key al Qaeda operative, who had been arrested from Faisalabad in central Pakistan.
Thirdly, the Baradar- arrest in Pakistan underscores an ever-increasing army-to-army cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Intelligence officials in Islamabad also underscore the February 17 drone strike as another proof of the growing intelligence; the US missile strike in North Waziristan killed Muhammad Haqqani, the 30-year-old son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is currently leading the Haqqani network allegedly out of North Waziristan in partnership with Al-Qaeda.
Fourthly, and perhaps more importantly, responsible for this cooperation is probably the personal rapport that chairmans Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and Gen.David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, have established with the Pakistan chief General Ashfaq Kayani and his successor in the ISI – General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
Ever since taking charge from Musharraf in November 2007, Kayani had quietly endeavoured to distance himself from his predecessor, relieving Musharraf’s trusted people of critical duties and also charting a new approach in dealing with the United States by explaining the operational details and sharing critical information on the region with the American military commanders including a July 2008 meeting with Gen.Petraus on board the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean.
During his visit to Brussels for a security conference late January, General Kayani, told his interlocutors that real effective cooperation required a relation based on mutual trust.
“I have been telling Mullen and Petraeus as well as others in NATO that if you keep suspecting and insinuating against us publicly we will find it difficult to motivate our rank and file,” Kayani had told us on February 3rd. With doubts and allegations our room for maneuvering also shrinks, he maintained.
Kayani had conveyed the same message to Admiral Mullen and Gen. Petraeus when they met at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi south of Islamabad in mid December last year. Kayani had tried to explain the intricacies of army operations in the Waziristan region, requesting his guests that the Pakistan army itself would determine the scale and timing of any future military campaign into North Waziristan. He reportedly assured them of full cooperation but “only if we are viewed with trust and not suspicion.”
Fifth, if Mullen and Petraeus statements in since December last year were any indicator, they seem to have a sympathetic ear for Kayani and his concerns. That is why Mullen was all praise for the Pakistan army for its anti-Taliban campaign in Swat in summer 2009 after a day-long helicopter trip to the region in December.
Lastly, Pakistan probably sensed an opportunity after the London conference in late January, where the first strong hints for reconciliation and dialogue were dropped and Islamabad apparently recalibrated the policy it had pursued thus far (of not touching the Afghan Taliban).
Statements by US officials following Baradar’s arrest suggested Pakistan should have a place at the negotiating table whenever talks open with Afghan Taliban.
The latest events will likely lead to the release of at least part of the $1.3 billion Coalition Support Funds that the US owes Pakistan. Besides accounting objections, a dispute over a Pakistani refusal to grant visas to American security officials also accounted for the delay in the disbursement.
So far since 2001 Pakistan has received more than $12 billion in US aid, and in October the Obama administration agreed a further $7.5 billion over five years.
This also raises the question as to whether President Obama’s incentives for Pakistan are bearing fruit and whether Mulla Baradar’s arrest would yield the desired results as far as talks with Taliban are concerned?
If Mullah Zaeef, Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan before 9/11, and Mullah Mutawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, were any indicators, one might tend to caution that Baradar’s arrest may not augur well for the reconciliation effort; if Baradar is somehow seen having switched sides, or brought to Kabul and turned into a central figure for persuading a large part of the insurgency, for which Mulla Omar remains the guiding spirit, he too, might become irrelevant.
This way, Baradr’s capture might even become a stumbling block for the reconciliation efforts. Nor could it possibly lead to a “dramatic” shift of balance on the battlefield. Most Afghan observes emphasize that the loss of Mullah Dadullah, Akhter Mohammad Osmani, and Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taliban defense minister and Baradar’s predecessor, failed in denting the Taliban insurgency. Mulla Baradar’s loss (to the authorities) could possibly hurt the opposition little – as long as Mulla Omar remained the supreme commander and the spiritual mentor to the insurgents.