Pakistan's Taliban Captives: Accident or Turning Point?

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Seldom are things exactly as they seem in the complicated labyrinth of Pakistani-American relations. Take the recent capture of the Afghan Taliban's military chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi early this year. As far as is known, the CIA got word through a communications intercept that there might be a Taliban meeting taking place in the port city. The CIA tipped off Pakistani intelligence, which made the arrest.

Not long afterwards, the Pakistanis picked up Mullah Kabir, another ranking member of the "Quetta Shura," the inner circle of the Afghan Taliban leadership. This, in addition to the arrest of a Taliban shadow provincial governor, Mohammed Yunis, indicated to the Americans that Pakistan had a change of heart about their erstwhile allies, the Taliban.

"This indicates Baradar was not a one off or an accident, but a turning point in Pakistan's policy towards the Taliban," a former CIA official, Bruce Riedel, told The New York Times. "We still need to see how far it goes, but for Obama and NATO this is the best possible news. If the safe haven is closing then the Taliban are in trouble."

But Pakistani author and journalist, Ahmed Rashid, who literally wrote the book on the Taliban and has impeccable sources, has a different narrative. Addressing a conference in Camden, Maine, last weekend, Rashid said that the capture of Baradar had in fact been an accident. The Pakistanis thought that had caught only small fry, but soon found out they had captured Taliban Chief Mullah Omar's right-hand man.

"They were deeply embarrassed," Rashid said. "Pakistan still thinks of the Taliban as a useful ally."

Ever since the recent London Conference on Afghanistan, trying to strike a deal with the Taliban has been the favored approach of not only the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, but of the United States. The Americans talk of "peeling off" layers of Taliban supporters who might not be that loyal to Mullah Omar. Karzai talks of possible negotiations with higher-ups.

According to Rashid, Barabar has been in contact not only with the Karzai government but with Saudi Arabia as well. When Taliban leaders want to travel they use Pakistani passports.

Pakistan has not let the Americans talk to their high level prisoners, and were reluctant to even let the United States know whom they had captured.

So what's Pakistan's game? According to Rashid, Pakistan resents Karzai and the Americans for sending out feelers to the Taliban without cutting Pakistan in. If there are going to be peace talks, "Pakistan wants to be a major broker," Rashid said.

Pakistan helped create and arm the Taliban in order to bring stability and a pro-Pakistan government to Afghanistan, which fell into civil war after the Soviets left. The American invasion after 9/11 merely replaced a pro-Pakistan Taliban government in Kabul with the pro-Indian Northern Alliance, in Pakistani eyes. Pakistan will do everything in its power to insure a friendly power on its western frontier, not a cat's paw for arch-enemy India.

Pakistan's harboring of the Afghan Taliban has been a source for frustration for the Americans. In the recent fighting in Waziristan, the Pakistani army targeted the so-called Pakistani Taliban, but left alone the Taliban that is fighting the United States, NATO, and the Karzai government. In so doing, the Pakistanis are doing what the British did in their long years of fighting Pashtuns on the Northwest Frontier - buying off some tribes while they went after others.

Rashid is optimistic that the time might just be ripe for a compromise with the Taliban: power-sharing in Kabul and an eventual pull out of NATO forces, in exchange for expelling Al Qaeda and giving up armed struggle. A grand bargain with a grand betrayal.

The Americans look more towards encouraging defections from the Taliban than a deal with incorrigibles. The theory is that much of the Taliban fights because there are no jobs, and for ethnic Pashtun nationalism, rather than for religion.

If he really was discussing a deal with the Saudis and Karzai, Baradar's arrest, whether by Pakistani design or accident, will complicate matters. But it is very clear that Pakistan wants in on any deal that might be made in the future.

So far, the Taliban have never shown any interest in expelling Al Qaeda from their midst , even though they have been offered many carrots and been beaten with many sticks over the years. That they might do so now would be a triumph of hope over experience.

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