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Politics

A Turning Point in the Afghan War

The capture of the No. 2 Taliban leader will really make a difference -- in more ways than one.

Several times in the past decade, the U.S. has trumpeted the death or capture of a top insurgent, only to find it didn’t make all that much difference. Remember Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Al Qaeda in Iraq not only survived his demise in June 2006, but it shows every intention of trying to spark a fresh sectarian civil war as U.S. forces prepare to leave.

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Or how about Mullah Dadullah, once the Afghan Taliban’s senior military commander? He was killed in a NATO/Afghan raid in May 2007, but the fighting in Afghanistan only grew bloodier, with U.S. casualties there overtaking those in Iraq last year. In the past six months, U.S. drone strikes have killed two successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud. But the organization survives and still threatens NATO traffic on the Khyber Pass, the indispensable ground supply route into Afghanistan.

It was with all this in mind that I digested the news that the Pakistani Army, with CIA help, had captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Yes, Baradar is the top lieutenant of Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar. But Taliban field commanders have never been short of initiative in staging their own attacks. How much difference is the capture of one man, however senior, likely to make?

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When the man is Baradar, the answer is “a lot.” His capture certainly won’t end the war, but it could well prove a turning point. Newsweek ran a profile of Baradar last July, as U.S. forces in Afghanistan were taking their heaviest losses since 2001. It noted that, among his other functions, Baradar was the man responsible for appointing or firing the Taliban’s shadow governors and field commanders. He controlled and disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars from drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping, as well as from foreign donations. And by all accounts, he was a formidable military leader in his own right.

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Finding someone who can do all the jobs Baradar did as effectively as he did them will be a tall order. But there’s also the small matter of the combined NATO/Afghan assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. Baradar’s capture throws a monkey wrench into the Taliban’s command structure at what, for the insurgents, is the worst possible moment.

But more significant, in the long run, is what the event is likely to mean for U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against the Afghan Taliban. The average Pakistani still regards the Afghan war as America’s fight and wants nothing to do with it. Pakistan’s army, and particularly its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, helped create the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and have long regarded it as a potential ally against India. That India has been cultivating closer ties with Kabul since 2001 has done little for their peace of mind. Islamabad has assisted the U.S. against its erstwhile client only grudgingly.

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The Washington Post says Baradar’s arrest was the result of months of U.S. pressure on Islamabad. The New York Times says a lot of luck was involved. The Afghan Taliban isn’t likely to care how it happened. They’ll interpret it as a betrayal and are likely to respond with attacks against Pakistani targets. The more the Afghans sheltering in Pakistan’s borderlands attack their host, the harder the Pakistani Army will hit back and the more help it’ll provide the U.S.

Meanwhile, Islamabad will milk its hold over Baradar for all it’s worth. Washington and Kabul have been making noises for months about trying to sound out more-moderate Taliban members about laying down their arms or switching sides. Pakistan has largely been sidelined in this process, leaving it worried that, once again, the U.S. is about to leave it in the lurch. Much of the speculation about such talks suggested that Baradar would be the ideal candidate to negotiate such a deal for the Taliban. Simply by having him in custody, Pakistan becomes the indispensable middleman.

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