The months of January and February 2010 increasingly appear to be watershed months in the fight against the insurgency in Afghanistan. While the fighting will not end in February, a series of significant events likely has wounded the insurgency.
In January, President Karzai announced a new reconciliation plan that would attempt to make peace directly with the Taliban leadership (“reconciliation”) and then to financially and logistically help Taliban fighters to transition to civilian life (“reintegration”). The financing for the reconciliation plan was pledged by international donors at the January 28 London Conference.
However, also on January 28, a Reuters story broke that Kai Eide, the outgoing UN special envoy to Afghanistan, had met secretly with Taliban regional commanders in Dubai on January 8. The fact that there was even an Eide-Taliban meeting was profound on its own merits. The meeting’s implications have been noted elsewhere to include a possible Mullah Omar assassination by his own commanders.
A string of positive developments have come out of Afghanistan and Pakistan since the London Conference. For instance, on February 4, the US commanding general in Afghanistan (and ISAF commander) Stanley McChrystal, stated in reference to Afghanistan’s security situation, “I do not say now that I think it’s deteriorating. I think and I said that last summer, and I believed that that was correct. I feel differently now.” McChrystal’s statement was a shocker because just last September in his Afghanistan assessment to President Obama, the general inferred that Afghanistan might be lost unless the international forces could retake the initiative from the Taliban within the next 12 months. To help accomplish this, McChrystal requested a surge in US troop levels.
On February 9, Haikimullah Mehsud’s death was confirmed. He was the Pakistani Taliban leader. The Pakistani Taliban is not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban, which is also headquartered in Pakistan. Also on February 9, the largest military offensive since the Taliban’s overthrow in December 2001 began in Marjah, the last major Taliban stronghold in Hilmand Province, Afghanistan’s opium capital. The Marjah offensive is also significant because Afghan forces outnumber international forces 3 to 2 -a first for Afghan security forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai personally authorized the offensive in what was a rather eye-opening moment to understanding the person of Karzai.
On February 15, the New York Times announced the capture of the Afghan Taliban’s number two leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar through a joint ISI (Pakistani intelligence) and CIA mission. Mullah Baradar’s capture may have occurred as early as February 5. The NYT learned about Baradar’s capture through a leak but the White House asked the NYT not to publish the story because it would sacrifice the ongoing intelligence effort that followed Baradar’s capture. The White House told the NYT sometime on the 14th or 15th that it could publish the story because Baradar’s capture suddenly became known in Pakistan.
Baradar’s capture is huge because he was the Taliban’s top day-to-day leader. The Taliban’s actual chief is Mullah Omar who is a recluse by nature and even more so now since he has a $25 million bounty on his head. Consequently, Omar is not in a position to be too visible with his commanders. It is Mullah Baradar who is the face of the Taliban leadership to the many Taliban commanders and shadow Afghan Taliban governors.
On February 17, Reuters reported that some members of the Afghan Parliament held a secret three-day meeting in the Maldives with representatives from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s organization, another Afghan insurgency group. The meeting occurred just before the London Conference. Hekmatyar was a prominent warlord during the 80s and during the Afghan civil war of the 90s. Although Hekmatyar fought against the Taliban in the mid-90s, and lost, today he is aligned with them. The Maldives meeting probably was not successful (see story) but at least it happened. The fact that it occurred around the time of the unveiling of Karzai’s reconciliation plan is evidence of reconciliation’s enormous political momentum.
On February 19, the Wall Street Journal reported the arrest of two Taliban shadow governors for Afghanistan’s Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. Both men were close to Mullah Baradar, and both men were also arrested by the ISI.
Also on February 19, Reuters reported that a US drone fighter killed one of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s sons, Mohammad Haqqani. The target of the strike was Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin’s oldest son, who actually leads the Haqqani Network, which is the second largest insurgency faction in Afghanistan after the Taliban. It operates out of Pakistan’s North Waziristan, a part of Pakistan’s tribal lands, and has been responsible for a number of ISAF deaths in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
What is particularly fascinating about the above events is their occurrence within a short time frame, that Pakistani intelligence (ISI) was directly involved in the above arrests, and that these arrests might be linked to the Eide-Taliban meeting and/or other secret meetings with the Taliban. At least six theories are already being floated that try to make sense of Mullah Baradar’s capture and/or the flood of recent insurgency defeats. Those who would like to read more about them can do so via the following links: theory one, theory two, theory three, theory four, and theories five and six.
A large (and frustrating) part in trying to figure out what is actually happening behind the scenes -or which theory is correct- is finding reliable information because government sources largely are keeping quiet on the particulars of these events. In the US government, the people that are privy to intercepts, classified information, etc. are forbidden to speak about them by law. However, leaks occur, such as the Baradar capture leaked to the NYT, and often -but not always- the leaks present useful information. The reporters that publicize the leaks protect their sources with such lines as “a senior administration official said”.
One of the theories, recorded by WSJ writer Matthew Rosenberg, is plausible because it rests on what is known about Pakistan’s Afghan Taliban policy. Pakistan’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan has been to maintain as much influence as possible over the country and its government. Such influence would prevent an Afghanistan that might try to seize the Pashtun lands of northern Pakistan, and it would prevent India’s influence in Afghanistan. (India is Pakistan’s archenemy.) The main vehicle for Pakistan to achieve this influence in Afghanistan has been the Pashtun people, which happen to straddle both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (or the Durand Line).
The Pakistani government backed the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in the mid-90s in part because the Taliban was committed to restoring law and order (stability) in Afghanistan and subsequently the Taliban gained an enormous grass roots support mainly among the non-urban Pashtuns during the Afghan civil war.
Nevertheless, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are central to Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan so the Pakistani government has refused to hunt down the Afghan Taliban in its territory despite strong US pressure to do so. In contrast, Pakistan is pursing the Pakistani Taliban that is based in South Waziristan. The Pakistani government sees the Pakistani Taliban as a direct national security threat, but it does not view the Afghan Taliban in this way.
With the arrests of Mullah Baradar and the two shadow Afghan Taliban governors, we might be witnessing the start of a shift in Pakistan’s Afghan Taliban policy. However, it is too early to tell because Rosenberg’s article explains that US officials had been prodding the Pakistani government for months to go after Afghan Taliban leaders before it finally did. The picture that Rosenberg paints is that the Pakistani government was dragged along kicking and screaming in the Baradar arrest.
Rosenberg, whose inside source appears to be a DoD official, writes that for months the US government had been showing the Pakistani government “details of intelligence” that linked the ISI to “Taliban attacks in Afghanistan”. Evidence was shown that linked even senior ISI officials to the Taliban. ISI agents were “sitting in on Afghan Taliban leadership meetings and providing strategic guidance and logistical support to the group” and even providing “funding”. Rosenberg states that General McChrystal also presented evidence to the Pakistani government showing that the Afghan Taliban had become “intertwined” with the Pakistani Taliban. The connection of the two groups undoubtedly helped prod Pakistani officials to action.
Rosenberg’s point about a reluctant Pakistan is important because it casts doubt on at least two of the Baradar arrest theories. The first alleges that Baradar himself wanted peace and worked out a deal to orchestrate his arrest by the ISI and then to be used as a mediator to make peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In contrast, a more conspiratorial theory claims that Baradar intentionally tried to end the Afghan Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan by cultivating relations with elements in Iran and getting funding within Afghanistan, rather than from Pakistan, and the ISI arrested him for these actions because it feared losing influence over the Taliban.
To be sure, there probably was multi-faceted pressure on the Pakistani government to arrest Baradar and the other Taliban leaders. For instance, the US did kill the two top Pakistani Taliban leaders over the last five months (the Mehsud brothers) and this helpful effort may have pressured the Pakistani government to reciprocate with Baradar’s capture.
Also, the Pakistani government likely feels the pressure from the Eide-Taliban meeting and Karzai’s new reconciliation plan. What if these events come to fruition without Pakistan’s involvement? Pakistan would be left out. Its influence in the future of Afghanistan would be weakened. It could be that Pakistan was under pressure to stay relevant to Afghanistan and this may have contributed to its arresting Baradar.
Another source of pressure to arrest Baradar could have come from the February 3 killings of three US servicemen serving in Pakistan. There is evidence that the soldiers’ position was communicated to extremists by ISI or other Pakistani military elements. If Baradar was really arrested ten days prior to the news of his capture, then this would put Baradar’s actual arrest around February 5, or two days after the US servicemen were killed. The Pakistani government may have been feeling extra heat from the US soldiers’ deaths because it was likely a fresh example of the kind of ISI-Taliban collaboration that US officials had been telling the Pakistani government about for months.
It is too early to tell whether the Pakistani government’s policy has turned against the Afghan Taliban, or if the arrests in February were just an isolated case. The truth will be known if more Afghan Taliban arrests follow on Pakistani soil.