x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Taliban remains silent after high-profile prisoner release

Given the the contempt in which President Karzai is held by most of the Afghan peoples, having his support can do great damage.

Pakistan released seven insignificant Afghan Taliban last month as a gesture of support for the stalled peace process. But it was the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, really wanted and got.

Abdul Ghani is the man’s given name. Mullah is a title of religious respect. Baradar (brother) was bestowed on him by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban.

In 2001, US troops were unaware they had Mullah Omar surrounded in a little hamlet outside Kandahar. Ghani learnt of the US invasion in Quetta and, apprehensive of what might happen, decided to return to Kandahar. Once there, he became aware of his leader’s plight and decided to rescue Omar.

This operation won him the sobriquet “Baradar” and ensured his rapid ascent to Omar’s second-in-command and the leadership of the so-called Quetta Shura, the organisation that sits atop the Taliban’s complex structure.

Despite his relatively self-effacing style, Omar was the undisputed leader of the Taliban. The charming Ghani was, nevertheless, the man most looked up to by the rank and file.

Intelligent and witty, he could alternate between being a ruthless killer and a man to sit around and have a laugh with. No wonder then, that he became an Afghan legend in his lifetime or that there are ballads written in appreciation of his daring.

Ghani is from the Popalzai Durrani clan, the same as Karzai. It is also known as the king’s tribe, since it claims to be direct descendants of Ahmad Shah Durrani, while Omar belongs to the Ghilzai tribe. Ghani was reputed to have a larger personal following than Omar.

Ghani is also a pragmatist. He started suggesting the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Americans from as early as 2007. Coming from anyone else, such a suggestion might have been scoffed at, but none dared challenge Ghani.

By 2009, when Gen Stanley McChrystal drafted the initial International Security Assistance Force Report, support for Ghani’s view was increasing. Omar, meanwhile, was still unable to decide which direction to move in.

In February 2009, a joint US-Pakistan operation bagged Ghani in Karachi. Here things get a little murky. During interrogation, Ghani revealed to Pakistani officials that he was “captured” to negotiate a deal with the CIA on behalf of Omar.

Both Pakistan and Omar’s spokesman claimed no knowledge of Ghani’s overtures to the Americans. The result was that Pakistan refused to hand Ghani over to the US.

This fact received only mild protests, placing considerable suspicion on those who had authorised his capture.

While Ghani’s brash, daring, witty and confident style won him a lot of admirers, it also made a lot of enemies. Accusations relating to Ghani’s “betrayal” of Omar steadily increased, while the voices of his supporters began to fade.

For his part, Omar has still not stated his official position on this controversy, perhaps because he cannot risk alienating the Durrani clan in Southern Afghanistan.

Ghani’s enemies were, however, baying for blood.

This was the quandary Pakistan faced in releasing Ghani, when the Karzai government was insisting on his release, while Omar’s Taliban were not. If Pakistan released him and he was subsequently killed, Pakistan would be held responsible.

But, on the other hand, however unacceptable the Karzai government might be to the Afghan peoples, it still is the elected Afghan government.

Even the US could not ignore Karzai while attempting to negotiate the future of Afghanistan. On this issue Pakistan found itself between a rock and a hard place.

After considerable prevarication, Pakistan reluctantly released Ghani but continues to keep him under its watchful eye.

Those members of the Taliban who have expressed a reluctance to meet with Ghani are not Omar’s faction.

Their desire to meet Ghani on the stipulation that he be unprotected is, in many ways, a confirmation of the threat they pose to him.

Those who accuse Pakistan of attempting to derail the Afghan peace process are either unaware of these facts or are ignoring them.

That Ghani was the highest placed Taliban leader who had the wisdom (or guile) to realise that a negotiated settlement with US forces of occupation would become inevitable, is indisputable.

As also is the fact that if any of the Taliban leaders could have mustered support for whatever deal was negotiated between the US and the Taliban, it would have been Ghani.

That he could do this now is still a possibility although, in my view, a highly unlikely one.

His courage might still be extolled but he would need time to reestablish himself; time that his enemies are unlikely to give him.

But Karzai’s insistence on his release can only have tarnished his image even further.

Only if one is conscious of the contempt – yes, even hate – in which Karzai and his cohorts are held by the vast majority of the Afghan peoples, can one begin to appreciate the damage that his support does to the image of anyone. 

And, even as we discuss all these aspects, the silence of Omar’s spokesman is deafening.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer