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Taliban Commander Captured as Coalition Forces Make New Gains

February 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The campaign to crush Taliban fighters in the southern Afghanistan city of Marjah moved swiftly in its fourth day with the capture of resistance leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Pakistan. Judy Woodruff speaks with Afghanistan political experts Seth Jones, Thomas Johnson and Steve Coll.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we get three views.

Seth Jones is a senior political scientist at the research organization RAND. He was an adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan last year. Thomas Johnson is a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He focuses on Afghanistan and Central Asia. And Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation and a writer for The New Yorker. He’s the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden.”

Thank you, all three, for being with us.

Seth Jones, to you first.

Let’s focus on this important capture. First of all, we do believe that Mullah Baradar has been captured, even though the administration isn’t confirming it?

SETH JONES, senior political scientist, RAND Corporation: Yes, most of the evidence does point to the strong likelihood that he has been captured.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how big a deal do you think it is?

SETH JONES: Well, it’s probably important to know that the insurgency is not hierarchically structured. There are a range of insurgent groups. There are a range of tribes, subtribes, drug organizations.

The Taliban is the largest insurgent — insurgent organization. This is probably important for three very brief reasons. One is, Mullah Baradar is the second in command. He is a primary operational commander involved in running a range of the senior shuras among senior Taliban officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shura being?

SETH JONES: Councils. The Taliban is broken down into a series of committees or councils.

Third, it does demonstrate — or, second, it does demonstrate improved Pakistani cooperation with the U.S. on the Afghan insurgent groups. The Taliban has not been a major focus of operations.

And, then, third, I would also note that this does now begin to put into question whether the insurgency is tipping now, with — with at least a major senior Taliban official now being captured.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll, how do you see this? How important?

STEVE COLL, president & CEO, New America Foundation: I think — I think it’s potentially very important. The Pakistanis, as Seth notes, have not gone after the Quetta Shura, as it’s called, the supreme leadership of the Afghan Taliban, in a vigorous way.

The fact that they apparently partnered with the United States suggests they may be breaking their past pattern of catch-and-release, where they have made symbolic arrests to please the West, but not changed their fundamental tolerance of the Taliban on Pakistani soil.

But let’s see whether this becomes part of a concerted effort against Taliban leadership and whether it also leads the Pakistanis to try to push the Taliban to convert their violence into political negotiations with Kabul. That would be a big tipping point in the insurgency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Johnson, what do you look for to determine the significance of this?

THOMAS JOHNSON, Naval Postgraduate School: Well, I think that what’s very important here is that there’s been rumors for many months that there’s fissures and disputes between different leaders in the Quetta Shura. And I think that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, to define the Quetta Shura?

THOMAS JOHNSON: The Quetta Shura is basically the leadership council of the Taliban.

And Baradar is viewed as one of the more pragmatic members. And I think that there’s long been rumors that some of the hard-liners have disagreed with Baradar and have — and this has had major impacts relative to how they viewed questions of reconciliation and negotiations.

And there’s been further rumors that a military leader by the name of Mullah Zakir actually might have ratted out Baradar. So, I think that this could be very significant, relative to the notions of reconciliation and negotiations, two key aspects of our counterinsurgency strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So…

THOMAS JOHNSON: I would disagree relative to what this means vis-a-vis the — the Pakistan cooperation.

Let’s not forget that, just two weeks ago, Secretary Gates directly asked Islamabad to increase military actions against the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan, ostensibly in North Waziristan, and the Pakistani military, as well as Islamabad, came back and said, no, we’re not going to have any new military operations this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, I want to — I just want to…

THOMAS JOHNSON: So, I think this is very significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

I want to divide out that point, because you raised it again about the significance of the fact that the Pakistanis were part of this, despite their historic support for the Afghan Taliban.

But what about Mullah Baradar himself? We just heard Tom Johnson say he was seen by some as a moderating force in the Taliban. Is it known whether that’s the case or not?

SETH JONES: Well, it’s unclear what the reason and why he was captured. I mean, Tom is right that there have been fissures within the inner shura. Mullah Zakir has pushed for some of the suicide attacks. Baradar has actually asked that the Taliban be careful in targeted assassinations and suicide attacks, because the insurgency is about hearts and minds, and he has recognized that.

So, what is unclear, though, is what the reasons within Pakistan were for — for targeting Mullah Baradar in this case, and, as Steve noted earlier, whether this is part of a longer-term strategy or this is a one-off capture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll, how do you see that?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think Pakistanis have a record of going after militant groups on their territory when they see it as being in their own interest. So, if a Pakistani Taliban faction wages revolutionary violence against the Pakistani state, the state responds.

The question here is, what does the Pakistani army and intelligence service see as being in their interest in the prosecution of the Quetta Shura, or potentially the conversion of the Quetta Shura into negotiators in a reconciliation strategy?

I think, ultimately, Pakistan is going to play its hand to defend its own national interests, as the army and the leadership interprets them. Let’s hope that that leads towards negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tom Johnson, focusing back again on the Taliban in Afghanistan, does this — does this clearly weaken them, or, because they are so divided, is there a question about that?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, let’s not overstate the divisions.

But I think it’s really too early to tell. The Quetta Shura is basically the command center for the insurgency in the south. But, that being said, the Taliban have morphed into more of a franchise organization. So, their regional and district leaders have degrees of freedom in their actions.

So, I think it’s basically too early to tell. But there’s no question that this — that he’s — he’s an important player and this is a major event for the United States, as well as NATO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the immediate effect could be on the Taliban, Seth Jones?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well…

SETH JONES: Well, I think there are two impacts.

One is — is that this may cause some short-term impact on the inner shura’s ability to run the strategic and operational components of the insurgency. Now, he was the one that was giving guidance in some of these shuras meetings in Pakistan of senior shadow governors and military commanders. There may be a short-term impact, until it’s clear that he’s been replaced.

Second — second issue is, again, this does — the — the bulk of any insurgency is of the local population. Most of them in Afghanistan tend to be fence-sitters. Part of the issue is, is this — are many of them going to begin to sort of question openly who is winning?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll, so, how quickly should we expect the Taliban to sort of reorganize themselves to make up for a loss like this?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think watching what they do and announce over the next week or two is an important indicator of — of how they interpret this inside the Quetta Shura, how serious the fissures may be.

The Taliban have developed very sophisticated messaging and media operations. So, they will want to message some narrative of continuity and succession.

But let’s see. As we have seen in the case of the Pakistani Taliban after the decapitation of leadership, it’s taken them some time. And they have exhibited disarray in the succession process. Let’s watch and see what happens with the Quetta Shura here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Johnson, I want to come back to the — this big military operation in Helmand province in Marjah. How — first of all, what is the goal, and, second, do you think they’re going to be successful?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, I think that General McChrystal recognizes that we can’t kill and capture our way to victory in Afghanistan. And I think that we have heard different statements coming out of the military concerning government in boxes and this notion that we need to separate the people, the — the population from the Taliban insurgents.

It — I find it somewhat interesting that it was such a large force, 15,000 troops, going in to Marjah, where nobody suggests there were more than 1,000, maybe 2,000 Taliban at the most.

But I think that what the Taliban have to do here is, they just — they recognize that, if they don’t lose, they win. That’s to suggest they’re not going to come out and face us kinetically, because they recognize that a stalemate is a victory for them. Patience is on their side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seth Jones, finally, do you think it will be a successful?

SETH JONES: Well, I think the key issue will probably not be the military operations. The key issue will be negotiating with the key power brokers in the Marjah area. They tend to be a range of tribal and other community leaders.

And the question is, will the combination of Afghan and NATO forces be able to coerce or co-opt these power brokers over the long run to ensure that they stay on their side, as opposed to going back to the Taliban? Because, in this area of Helmand, this is — there’s a constant shift between both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, it’s an ongoing operation.

Seth Jones, we thank you, Tom Johnson and Steve Coll.

Gentlemen, thank you all.

SETH JONES: Thank you.