Mullah Baradar: Afghanistan’s President-in-Waiting?

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Mullah Baradar: Afghanistan’s President-in-Waiting?

Baradar appears as a moderate today but as part of the Taliban regime in the 1996-2001 period, he participated in horrific massacres.

Mullah Baradar: Afghanistan’s President-in-Waiting?

File photo of a young boy walking past a wall depicting Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo / Rahmat Gul

Mullah Abdul Ghani, better known as Mullah Baradar (meaning brother), could become Afghanistan’s next president. Talks are on among different players in the Afghan conflict to decide on the composition of a new Afghan government. While it will be a Taliban-dominated government, it appears that the group is under pressure to make it more inclusive.

According to media reports, Baradar, who arrived in Kandahar two days after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, is the frontrunner for the post of president. Even if he doesn’t become president, he will take on “a major role in the new government,” according to a former Afghan government official.

Baradar is the Taliban’s political chief and was appointed head of its political office in Doha in January 2019. He has been the Taliban’s public face over the last couple of years, leading the group in negotiations with the United States and in the subsequent intra-Afghan talks. Baradar also headed the Taliban’s diplomatic delegations over the past year to several capitals, including Moscow, Islamabad, Tehran and Beijing.

He is widely seen to be the most suited to lead Afghanistan’s new government. An important reason is his “moderate” image. His involvement in the quest for a political settlement to the Afghan conflict has given him the appearance of being a political rather than a military leader. He has been careful with his statements and strived to seem reasonable, striking a firm but non-confrontational tone.

Early this year, for instance, when the Biden administration announced a review of the Doha Agreement and it seemed that it would halt the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Baradar reached out to the American public through an “open letter” that was published in the Taliban’s official website, Voice of Jihad, in which he called on “the American side to remain committed to the full implementation of this accord.” The Afghan conflict could not be resolved through use of force, he said, reiterating that the Taliban were “sincerely committed to finding a political solution to the ongoing conflict.”

Long before he began negotiating with the U.S. government delegation led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, Baradar was regarded as a key actor in a potential future political settlement, someone whose participation was necessary not only to jump-start talks with the insurgent group but who had wide support in the Taliban leadership as well as the rank and file.

Back in 2010, for instance, unknown to Pakistan, Baradar was negotiating with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai; both are Pashtuns of the Popalzai tribe. Fearing that he would be successful in cutting a deal with the Afghan government that would exclude them, the Pakistanis sabotaged the effort by arresting Baradar in Karachi.

All the main actors in the Afghan conflict recognized his centrality to peace talks and a political process. In 2019, Khalilzad revealed that both Karzai and his successor, President Ashraf Ghani, saw Baradar’s potential to “play a pivotal role in the peace process” and had repeatedly pressed the Pakistanis for his release. The Americans also saw him as a “moderate and a useful facilitator in peace talks,” someone who was “more open, more pro-peace.” Consequently, when the Trump administration began exploring talks to enable the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Khalilzad urged Pakistan to release him, a request that Islamabad finally conceded to in October 2018.

The Taliban has several other leaders, like its emir Haibatullah Akhundzada, military chief Mullah Yaqoob and Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, who are known for their knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence or for their military prowess. But these leaders are also known for brutality, extremist and ultra-conservative views and thus, are less likely to be acceptable to foreign governments. Baradar at the helm would make the new government seem more moderate and improve the chances of the new government securing diplomatic recognition and eventually investment.

Importantly, Baradar enjoys the respect of the Taliban rank and file. He was a close associate and trusted aide of Mullah Mohammed Omar. His ties with Omar go back to the 1980s; during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the two were part of the same mujahideen group. Then in 1994, Baradar along with Omar founded the Taliban.

Hence, Baradar enjoys the aura of belonging to the founding generation of the Taliban and is respected for having been a confidante of Omar and related to him by marriage, too. His seniority and proximity to Mullah Omar give him a stature that few other Taliban leaders can match.

Baradar’s stature in the Taliban soared after the signing of the Doha agreement in February 2020. The agreement, which was signed by Baradar and Khalilzad, provided for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. According to terrorism analyst Abdul Basit, the agreement was looked upon in the Taliban as a U.S. “surrender document.” The agreement also gave the Taliban legitimacy. The fact that Baradar negotiated and signed the document boosted his standing in the Taliban.

Baradar may be seen by some as a moderate today, but as part of Mullah Omar’s inner circle, he is a long-standing believer in the Taliban’s founding ideas and ultra-conservative ideology.

In addition, before taking on his current persona as a political negotiator, he was very much a military man and played an important role in the Taliban’s military offensives that culminated in its bloody capture of Kabul in 1996.

Baradar was an important part of the Taliban regime which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. While some reports claim that he was governor of Herat and Nimruz provinces, an unclassified U.S. State Department document lists him as the former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Commander of Central Army Corps during the Taliban regime. According to Interpol, he was the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Defense.

Baradar may have been responsible for massacres in the 1998-2000 period. “As deputy chief of staff, on the ground during the Taleban offensive on the Shomali in 1999, ‘he personally order[ed] and over-[saw] one of the massacres, the summary execution of the eleven air base personnel at Dasht-e Chirchirik on August 3,'” the Afghanistan Analysts Network reported, citing a report of The Afghanistan Justice Project

His role in the Taliban regime earned him a place in the United Nations Security Council sanctions list.

After the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, Baradar fled to Pakistan. He is said to have played an important role in reorganizing the group to fight a guerrilla war against the coalition forces and thus facilitated its resurgence.

Baradar’s relationship with Pakistan has raised much speculation in India and Afghanistan. Did the Pakistanis manage to “turn him” during his time in jail or did his jail time harden his opposition to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)?

According to Indian officials, Baradar is among the rare Taliban leaders who resisted the control of the ISI. Apparently, he nurses much resentment against Pakistan for his imprisonment, as his confinement arrested his rise to the top position in the Taliban.

In 2007, Baradar was appointed deputy to Mullah Omar. When Omar’s health began deteriorating, Baradar took charge of the day-to-day running of the organization. Importantly, he was in charge of its military affairs and finances and was appointing and firing military commanders.

When Pakistani authorities took him into custody in 2010 and then kept him in jail for eight years, they not only removed him from activity on the ground but also they nipped his ambitions of becoming Taliban chief in the bud, Indian officials say.

While Baradar may have an axe to grind with the Pakistanis it is unlikely that his relationship with them is difficult. Baradar is well aware of the importance of Pakistan for the Taliban. He is unlikely to allow his personal peeves to impact the Taliban’s future.

Although his imprisonment by Pakistan hurt his ambitions of succeeding Mullah Omar as the Taliban’s emir, this jail time may have worked well ultimately for Baradar as it took him out of the battlefield, indirectly enabling the world to forget his brutal military past.

In the coming weeks and months, foreign governments will be strategizing on how to deal with the new government. While Baradar’s image makeover will play an important role in winning support for the Taliban government, foreign governments must tread carefully. They need to bear in mind that he was once described as “more cunning and dangerous” than Mullah Omar.