Ironic! Freed Taliban chief leads difficult peace talks

A co-founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, his role is seen as critical to the effort to end the 18-year war.

He was captured on Feb. 8, 2010, in a joint CIA-ISI raid outside Karachi. The Obama administration described the arrest of the Afghan Taliban's second-in-command as a “turning point” in its war in Afghanistan. He remained in confinement as the Taliban insurgency swept across the country.

In what could be termed as an irony of history, nine years later, Mullah Baradar sat across the negotiation table with American officials to discuss the timeline for the withdrawal of the occupation forces from his homeland. He had been released by Pakistani security agencies last year on America's request.

A co-founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, his role is seen as critical to the effort to end the 18-year war. The long confinement seems to have increased Baradar’s respect among the Taliban commanders. After the death of Mullah Omar, he is the de facto leader of the movement. His presence in the negotiations has given greater authority to the Taliban delegation. Though it is not going to be easy, progress in talks had raised hopes of the two sides reaching some kind of an agreement on ending the war.

Among others, there are five former inmates of Guantanamo who are also part of the Taliban delegation now engaged in peace talks in Doha. They were released in 2014 in exchange for an American soldier held by the Taliban. Since then, they have been living in Doha. All of them had been close to Mullah Omar. They came out of the shadows to join the negotiating team when the Trump administration decided to directly talk to the Taliban. Their inclusion was also meant to send a message to Washington. Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, has described their presence in the talks as “more authoritative”, and tweeted that this could be “a significant moment” in the talks.

Thirteen years of imprisonment and torture do not seem to have diminished their resolve. And, there is no sign of bitterness about what they had gone through. “It's been a long war, with lots of casualties and destruction and loss. What gives me hope is that both teams are taking the issue seriously,” Mullah Khairkhwa, one of the Guantanamo returnees, told the New York Times.

The very fact that the Americans are now negotiating their withdrawal plan with the group their forces had ousted from power almost 18 years ago tells the story of a war gone wrong. Even if the world’s greatest military power believes that it has not lost the war, it has not won it either. The Americans are now sitting across the table with the same men who they incarcerated and declared terrorists.

Surely, each one of those representing the Taliban in the negotiations has a story of struggle, of being in power and a life in detention. But Baradar has played a much greater role in building the insurgency, notwithstanding his long period in detention. His elevation to the top rung of the Taliban leadership indicates the influence he wields, particularly among the fighters.

Known as a brilliant and charismatic military commander, Baradar has been credited for rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force and running the group’s day-to-day affairs after the fall of the so-called Islamic emirate. Besides heading the Taliban’s military operations, he ran the group’s leadership council, also known as the Quetta Shura. As a young man, he participated in the Afghan “jihad” against the Soviet forces. It was during the war that he came to know of Mullah Omar. They fought side by side against the communist forces. After the withdrawal of the Soviet forces and the collapse of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992, Baradar settled down in the southern district of Maiwand where he and Mullah Omar ran their own madressah.

His arrest had dealt a serious blow to the Taliban insurgency. American officials were quick to declare a “significant win”. But his detention did not change the course of war. By the time he was released, the Taliban had expanded their influence to over 50 per cent of Afghanistan. Following his release, Baradar had circulated an audiotape promising Taliban fighters he would have a greater presence within the movement. Baradar’s release shows the Trump administration’s desperation to find a political solution to the Afghan crisis. The US-Taliban talks have made significant progress. But there is a long way to go.

Certainly, the war has intensified while they have been engaged in serious negotiations. It is going to be a classic war-war, talk-talk situation. There are still sticking points that could cause the negotiations to go on for much longer. The differences over the definition of “terrorism” and the time frame of the withdrawal of the American forces have remained unresolved. Then there is also the issue of the intra-Afghan dialogue. All those needed to be resolved before one can hope for peace to return to Afghanistan.

By arrangement with Dawn

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