Karzai gets his wish on Taliban release

Pakistan’s decision to free second-in-command Abdul Ghani Baradar could boost peace process, but critics are sceptical.

Afghan Mullah Baradar
Taliban number two Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan in 2010 [Getty Images]

Kabul, Afghanistan – For more than a year, the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been increasingly pushing Pakistan for the release of Abdul Ghani Baradar, long thought to be the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command.

Now, a week after releasing seven Afghan Taliban fighters, Islamabad announced on Saturday that it would free one of the four co-founders of Afghanistan’s largest armed opposition group.

“Yes Baradar has been released,” Omar Hamid, a spokesman for interior ministry, told the AFP news agency on Saturday.

But with reports of other released Taliban fighters returning to the battlefield and little known about Baradar’s beginnings, sources who spoke to Al Jazeera question the value of a release Karzai has personally requested repeatedly.

To Kabul, Baradar’s release is a potential game changer in the year-and-a-half effort to broker a peace between the Karzai government and the Taliban. As a high-ranking Taliban figure who had direct contact with the leader, Mullah Omar, the government in Kabul likely hopes Baradar has the political clout and the desire to help negotiate a peace deal. 

To the Taliban in Qatar – a dozen men said to serve as representatives of the group’s leadership in negotiations with Washington – the tide has already shifted.

Karzai, said a source close to the group in Doha, is acting out of “desperation” to salvage his legacy.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, the source said Karzai “wants to try all angles” to transform his image.

In place of the weak figurehead perched atop a corrupt administration, the Afghan president wants to be seen as the determined leader who brought peace to Afghanistan.

Limited value

In Doha, however, the focus has long since shifted westward.

Though his rank has earned Baradar their “public respect”, the Taliban delegation in the Qatari capital “see no value” in a man who has spent three years in Pakistani custody.

Instead, they are focused on the release of five of their men from the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

In June, when the group’s Doha political office was opened, sources told Al Jazeera that the release of the Guantanamo detainees was a central condition for the Taliban’s decision to officially open the office.

The Taliban is not a single tribe.

by - Waheed Mozhdah, a former official in the foreign ministry of the Taliban government, questioning the political value of releasing Baradar

“It will be a major to coup for them to free their men from US detention,” said the source.

Likewise, many say for Karzai, Baradar’s release is a personal matter.

The Afghan president is banking on Baradar’s release as a way to win the favour of the influential Popalzai tribe they both hail from.

However, sources speaking to Al Jazeera said Karzai’s hopes are misplaced.

Asadullah Hamdam, former governor of Uruzgan, said people in the province from which he hails know almost nothing about the man that came to be known as Mullah “brother”.

Prior to his ascent to the top tier of Taliban leadership, Baradar did not come from a well-known family within the Popalzais.

Even as part of the “jihad” against Soviet occupation, the mujhaideen forces Baradar fought alongside did little that would make them stand out.

In fact, since much of his work was in other provinces – Kandahar, Kabul, Nimroz and Herat – Hamdam said Baradar left little impact on the people of Uruzgan.

Though at the time of his 2010 apprehension Baradar was in talks with the Karzai government about a power-sharing deal, Waheed Mozhdah, a former official in the foreign ministry of the Taliban government, warned Karzai not to let the personal affect the political.

“The Taliban is not a single tribe,” Mozhdah told Al Jazeera.

Work for peace?

As proof, Mozhdah pointed to the current lack of consensus between the Noorzai and Achekzai families who have members currently actively engaged in the fight and others who have returned to the Afghan capital.

Left to his own devices, sources said Mullah Baradar would be unlikely to join in the peace efforts.

But with relations between Islamabad and Kabul at risk, Mozhdah said Pakistan was unlikely to take any risks with Mullah Baradar.

With his 2010 capture in a joint ISI-CIA operation in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, said to be a result of Pakistan intelligence’s anger at Kabul-Taliban talks that did not include them, many doubt Islamabad will not work to influence Bardar.

For its part, Washington has been pushing for monitoring of Baradar and other high-value Taliban figures released from detention.

Rahimullah Yusfuzai, a Peshawar-based journalist, questions the value of a man who has spent three years in Pakistani detention.

“At best, his isolation makes Baradar out of touch. At worst, he could have been convinced by Pakistan to switch sides,” Yusufzai told Al Jazeera.

The Taliban have stated that regardless of prior achievements, once a member of the group is captured he is stripped of his rank.

Knowing this, Afghan officials invited Baradar to return to Kabul – where he was believed to have served as the Taliban’s Deputy Chief of Army Staff – shortly after Pakistan’s announcement of its intention to free the Taliban leader.

The Karzai factor

Hamdam said the idea of an Afghanised peace process is appealing, but he sees it as highly unrealistic.

“The Taliban made it clear that they will not allow anyone in Kabul or in detention to serve as a representative for them.”

For all his instance on Baradar’s release, Karzai himself may be the biggest impediment to peace.

The Afghan president’s image problem is not only with the Afghan people.

The Taliban have repeatedly stated that they would never engage with the government of a man they see as a “puppet” and “traitor”.

This has led them to focus on direct negotiations with Washington, whom they see as pulling Karzai’s “puppet strings”.

Bringing Baradar to Kabul would only further reduce what influence he may have retained over the group.

Hamdam cited these factors as proof of an ill-conceived campaign based on false assumptions to free Baradar.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies