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Did captured Taliban leader seek Afghan deal?

By Nick Paton Walsh

Updated on 16 February 2010

As details emerge of how US officials captured Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar during a raid in Karachi, Nick Paton Walsh finds that the leader may have disagreed with the suffering of Afghanistan's civilians.

Taliban fighters pose with weapons, Afghanistan (Reuters)

It has the smell of Iraq, all over again; the capture of the "number two" leading militant.

When things were at their worst in Baghdad, the Americans only admitted to capturing the "number three" - sometimes on what seemed to be a monthly basis.

But today's reported capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar - the military commander of the Afghan Taliban and perhaps the second most important figure in the group below the elusive Mullah Omar - could really be of some significance.

The Taliban have denied reports that Baradar was arrested by a secret team of CIA and Pakistani intelligence while he was in the Pakistani port of Karachi. But the leading militant has been out of contact for days, Taliban sources have told us.

The idea that a Taliban commander is now in Pakistani custody, with CIA officers in attendance, according to some reports is a significant propaganda coup for Nato, if it's true.

It comes just as they launch what they hope will be the first of many successful offensives against a Taliban stronghold in Helmand.

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The first indications came to us from an excellent reporter working for us who remains nameless for his own safety. Yesterday, Baradar's colleagues in the Taliban had expressed concerns that he was not available on this phone for a few days.

It turns out the New York Times - two of their Washington-based reporters - had been on the case since Thursday, after which their report says they held fire at the White House's request to allow the US government time to milk the intelligence they were getting.

This morning, the reports were ubiquitous enough the NYT broke their silence.

Baradar was, we've been told, living with his family in Karachi for some time before the arrest. But what he'd been doing before that raises the most questions.

It's been suggested that he was one of the Taliban who met with western officials to discuss the prospect of peace talks in Saudi Arabia earlier.

It's also been suggested he fell out with Mullah Omar - the cleric who is essentially the Taliban's figurehead, although it's not clear how physically able he is to lead it on a day to day basis.

Our reporter has told us that Omar went as far as to appoint the Taliban shadow governor of Kandahar province, Mullah Hasan, as Baradar’s replacement.

The key to Baradar's falling out with Omar was, we're told, his belief that the war against Nato was bringing unnecessary suffering to the Afghan people, and that talks were needed.

A Taliban commander close to Baradar said, on condition of anonymity: "He wanted to start talks with both the Afghan government and foreign forces for settlement of the Afghan conflict which the rest of the leadership didn't accept. That led his expulsion".

Maybe Baradar was turned in, or weakened, or simply hung out to dry and picked up by the Pakistanis under American pressure?

But so many other questions beg to be answered.

What were the Pakistani intelligence services - the ISI, accused frequently of being the key sponsors of the Taliban - doing, picking up this key militant leader?

One possible explanation is that Baradar is a leader in the Afghan Taliban.

While they are not a separate distinct group from the Pakistani Taliban - known as the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - they do at times have differing interests.

Perhaps the TTP and Baradar had differences? Perhaps the ISI were willing to take him out of the picture.

Baradar also had enemies - perhaps that's a fatuous statement for one of the most wanted men in Af-Pak. But his rise had seen many competitors fall aside.

After Mullah Dadullah was assassinated by the British SBS in 2007 his brother took his place, but was quickly eclipsed by Baradar.

When he refused to step aside, Dadullah's brother was arrested by Pakistani security forces. Baradar's tangled web may have got him caught up finally.

Others will ask whether this arrest marks a significant improvement in Pakistan's relationship with Washington and its help cracking down on al-Qaida.

One theory is that Baradar's Afghan Taliban were getting too close to the Pakistani Taliban. Perhaps the Pakistani establishment saw them, finally, as an existential threat if they gained Afghan help, and decided to slap Baradar down.

But did that mean the ailing President Asif-Ali Zardari personally authorised the arrest? Probably not, as such a chain of events and delays would have probably resulted in Baradar getting away.

More likely, the Americans got wind of where he was, perhaps from enterprising or sympathetic Pakistanis, and had him picked up.

We should be cautious not to overstate its impact, as one US official said to Reuters: "I would call it significant. But even when you get their leaders, they've shown an amazing resilience to bounce back. It's an adaptive organization."

The psychological impact, Nato will hasten to point out, will be there. Taliban fighters losing morale as they learn that their commanders keep getting killed.

A successful drone campaign against the Pakistani Taliban – killing the commander Beitullah Mehsud and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud both in a matter of months - has led some to claim the TTP is broken, hierarchically at least.

It is early days in the unfolding story of Baradar, but the impact of this claim of an arrest, whether it turns out to be true or not, is just beginning.

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