Capture A Coup For U.S.-Pakistani Spy Agencies

A Pakistani man reads a newspaper headline about the capture of a top Taliban commander. i i

hide captionA Pakistani man reads a headline Tuesday reporting the capture of a top Taliban commander in Karachi. Reports say U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies worked together to capture Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani man reads a newspaper headline about the capture of a top Taliban commander.

A Pakistani man reads a headline Tuesday reporting the capture of a top Taliban commander in Karachi. Reports say U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies worked together to capture Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

The arrest of the man considered to be the second in command of the Afghan Taliban could signal an important boost in cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a secret joint operation between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, known as the ISI.

Wire service reports quoted Pakistani intelligence officials as saying that Baradar was arrested 10 days ago in the southern Pakistani port of Karachi and that he was talking with interrogators.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that authorities have been questioning him for days and that he has been asked, among other things, about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the top Taliban leader.

If Baradar is talking, experts say, it could be the most significant blow to the Afghan Taliban in years. Baradar is the most senior Afghan Taliban leader arrested since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

A Leadership Gap?

"Everyone speculates as to how much the Taliban is decentralized," says Alex Thier, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the United States Institute of Peace. "But clearly there is a leadership role and the loss [of Baradar] would be an issue."

Baradar was widely considered to be the Afghan Taliban's operational leader in recent years, and close to Omar.

His capture comes as U.S. and Afghan forces press into a Taliban stronghold in Marjah, in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, says the report that Baradar was captured in Karachi, far from the Afghan border, may suggest that his capture won't affect the Taliban's response to the U.S. military operation in Marjah.

"It probably means that the [Taliban] strategy has been set up for a while, and whatever they do has already been decided," Khanna says.

Thier says the Pakistanis long tolerated the presence of Baradar and other Afghan Taliban leaders and may even have helped them, but the Pakistani cooperation in Baradar's arrest may signal a new calculation.

"The Pakistanis may have actually made a decision that they're going to start forcing the Afghan Taliban out of Pakistan, or into negotiations with the U.S.," Thier says.

Khanna agrees that the ISI "would have known for a long time where [Baradar] is." He says one school of thought is that Pakistan now sees its own version of the Taliban as an existential threat and wants the foreign version out as well.

Khanna adds that the U.S. has more leverage with Pakistan now, because the U.S. is helping Pakistan fight Taliban insurgents, using unmanned drone strikes and providing the Pakistanis with intelligence from drone surveillance flights.

An Intelligence Jackpot?

Thier says there could be significant intelligence gains from Baradar's arrest, even if he refuses to cooperate with interrogators. "It depends on what they found with him. He might have laptops and cell phones."

One reason that intelligence officials didn't announce Baradar's capture right away, Thier says, might be the hope that people who were links in his communications network would try to contact him without knowing that he was already in custody.

Rumors of Baradar's arrest would also have caused "chatter" among Taliban members that could have allowed intelligence officials to uncover more connections, he says.

"The final piece, as far as intelligence is concerned," Thier says, "whether it's the ISI or some informant, is that [Baradar's arrest] has to scare the daylights out of all the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, because they're no longer safe."

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