Meet the Taliban's New Chief

Soon after 4,000 U.S. marines flooded into Afghanistan's Helmand River Valley on July 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar called top Taliban regional commanders together for an urgent briefing. The meeting took place in southwestern Pakistan—not far from the Afghan border but safely out of the Americans' reach. Baradar told the commanders he wanted just one thing: to keep the Taliban's losses to a minimum while maximizing the cost to the enemy. Don't try to hold territory against the Americans' superior firepower by fighting them head-on, he ordered. Rely on guerrilla tactics whenever possible. Plant "flowers"—improvised explosive devices—on trails and dirt roads. Concentrate on small-unit ambushes, with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. He gave his listeners a special warning: he would hold each of them responsible for the lives of their men. "Keep your weapons on your backs and be on your motorcycles," Baradar exhorted them. "America has greater military strength, but we have greater faith and commitment."

In all likelihood, you’ve never heard of Mullah Baradar. The only Taliban leader most people know is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the unworldly, one-eyed village preacher who held the grand title amir-ul-momineen—"leader of the faithful"—when he ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Omar remains a high-value target, with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. But he hasn't been seen in at least three years, even by his most loyal followers, and rarely issues direct orders anymore. In his place, the adversary that American forces are squaring off against in Afghanistan—the man ultimately responsible for the spike in casualties that has made July the deadliest month for Coalition soldiers since the war began in 2001—is Baradar. A cunning, little-known figure, he may be more dangerous than Omar ever was.

In more than two dozen interviews for this profile, past and present members of the Afghan insurgency portrayed Baradar as no mere stand-in for the reclusive Omar. They say Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban's commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group's senior leaders are based; and issues the group's most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban's treasury—hundreds of millions of dollars in -narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and "charitable donations," largely from the Gulf. "He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power," says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province who met Baradar this March in Quetta for the fourth time. "Baradar has the makings of a brilliant commander," says Prof. Thomas Johnson, a longtime expert on Afghanistan and an adviser to Coalition forces. "He's able, charismatic, and knows the land and the people so much better than we can hope to do. He could prove a formidable foe."

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