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Q&A: CIA-Pakistan Sting Nets No. 2 Taliban Leader

A joint CIA-Pakistan operation has captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 leader behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, reports said Tuesday. Seth Jones, a senior political analyst at the RAND Corporation, discusses its significance. Jones was an adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan last fall and his most recent visit there was in December.

Who is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar?

Mullah Baradar is actually a Popalzai. He’s the same tribe as President (Hamid) Karzai from Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan. There have been efforts over the past year or so by the president and the Afghan government to reach out to Baradar, because he’s a Popalzai, as somebody who could potentially be co-opted. It’s worth noting he has been really at the forefront of the Taliban’s effort to try and moderate itself over the last year or two. Baradar has pushed for a code of conduct that tries to limit the use of kidnappings and suicide attacks that impact Afghan civilians. He’s been particularly conscious of Taliban commanders taking steps that are going to alienate the Afghan population.

Will the Taliban become more hard-line now? It sounds like he was more moderate.

It’s unclear. I mean, part of the question is going to be who replaces Baradar. If it is someone like Mullah Zakir who is a Pashtun from Helmand Province, and actually was recently released from Guantanamo Bay. He tends to be a little more hard-line. A lot of it will depend who will Omar and the inner shura (community meeting) put in that No. 2 position.

How big a deal is Baradar’s arrest?

The capture of Mullah Baradar is significant for several reasons. One is he is the primary operational commander for Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Taliban, which operates in Afghanistan. It will, at least for the short run, disrupt the Taliban’s senior-level operational environment. He was the one who gave guidance to shadow governors and senior military commanders within Afghanistan, provided a range of guidance on how to act — codes of conduct.

Second, it’s also important because it indicates a level of Pakistan-American cooperation on Afghan insurgent groups that has not really existed since about 2001 and maybe 2002. There is recent information of elements of Pakistan’s government continuing to provide support to the Taliban. So this is a major change in behavior for Pakistan to now get involved in capturing a senior official.

Third, it does cause some to question on the ground — Afghans now — who is winning this war in Afghanistan. I would say for the last couple of years the Taliban have been able to make a strong argument that they have been winning. They’ve taken increasing amounts of territory. They’ve conducted high-profile attacks. Now some Afghans may begin to wonder if the winds are beginning to shift in Afghanistan. That’s very important from a public perception standpoint.

How will his capture impact other Taliban groups?

The Taliban’s main area for operation tends to be southern and western Afghanistan. So when you look at the insurgency more broadly, there are multiple groups involved, so this by no means indicates that other groups operating in Afghanistan now are going to be severely impacted. In fact, I wonder whether someone’s going to try to conduct a really high-profile attack now to show that the insurgency is still capable of conducting attacks in rural and urban areas.

The fractured nature of the insurgency means that Baradar, and the Taliban in general, never controlled the insurgency across Afghanistan.

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