The Taliban's second-in-command Mulah Abdul Ghani Baradar has been captured. But will his replacement prove more hardline?
A moderate voice is silenced
When American fighter jets pounded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in late 2001, Mullah Omar hopped on the back of a motorcycle, told his associates they were on their own and was driven off in Pakistan's direction. The driver of the motorbike who chauffeured the one-eyed fugitive Taliban leader to safety across the border is believed to have been Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, his deputy defence minister at the time.
The story may be apocryphal but the two were clearly very close - Baradar means "brother". Baradar rose to become Mullah Omar's trusted lieutenant until he was captured on February 8, or perhaps earlier, in a raid by American and Pakistani intelligence in the outskirts of Karachi. He is the most important Taliban figure to be arrested since the war began in 2001. He was second-in-command of the powerful 15-member Quetta council, led by Mullah Omar and based in the Pakistani city of the same name.
Baradar, believed to be 42, is being interrogated as American marines and British and Afghan soldiers dodge sniper fire and crude explosives to win the battle in Marjah across the border in Helmand - territory which happens to fall under the Quetta council's command. Baradar's capture has been hailed as evidence of Pakistan's change in policy, after years of viewing the Taliban as a useful strategic asset in Afghanistan by providing its fighters with safe havens from which to launch attacks across the border.
The White House is jubilant. "It's a big success for our mutual efforts in the region," a White House spokesman said during Wednesday's press briefing. But the story may be more complicated than that. There are a smattering of small-timers who may fill the seat left empty by Baradar. Two contenders are Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansoor, the former minister of civil aviation, or the former Taliban intelligence chief Hafiz Abdul Majeed, sources in the Taliban movement in Pakistan said.
A strong possibility is Mullah Zakir, the nom de guerre of Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who was picked up in the battlefields of northern Afghanistan in 2001 and released in 2007. He swore to a US military tribunal that he was happy that the Americans were rebuilding his homeland but when he returned there he promptly joined Mullah Omar's gang in Quetta and began directing operations in his native Helmand province.
"He was rumoured to be a hard case even before his experiences in Gitmo, but his time in Gitmo likely didn't help to soften Zakir up any," a state department source in Washington said. Baradar, on the other hand, was believed to be one of the moderate Taliban insurgency figures compared with the other hardliners. Baradar, who is from the same Popalzai tribe as the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was secretly passing messages between Mullah Omar and former Taliban figures in Afghanistan, who are trying to bring a political settlement to the insurgency, sources in Washington and Kabul said.
Mr Karzai has not made a public statement about the arrest. "Baradar was a really important strategist and a symbol of the old fight, connecting the 1980s and 1990s war to the current insurgency," said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a co-editor of My Life With The Taliban, an autobiography of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior leader in the Taliban regime. "The networks that fought with Mullah Omar at the top tier of the Taliban leadership that Zaaef was with, they fought together for 10 or 11 years. This bond from the 1980s is incredibly important."
That is changing as the old guard in the top ranks die, are captured or killed, he added. "The young guys we always see within the Afghan insurgency now are more radical, less open to compromise, less embodying or having any sense of the old traditions, less understanding about the context of why they are doing what they are doing." Mullah Zakir joined the movement around 1997, a relative newcomer.
Baradar's capture has also thrown a spotlight on the deadly Quetta council, which Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, listed as the "No One threat" to his mission in an assessment of the war last summer. Baradar directed daily operations on behalf of Mullah Omar, who finds it rather difficult to move around because of the US$10 million (Dh36m) bounty the Americans have placed on his head.
Over the past nine years, the power and reach of the Quetta council has increased. Its leaders, including Mullah Omar, may have relocated to Peshawar, a teeming city of 16 million residents, many of whom are Pashtuns and more likely to provide cover for insurgent leaders. With money from the heroin trade and donations from wealthy Gulf Arabs, the council plans bombings and assassinations in Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces against Afghan and western forces.
The Quetta council has also established shadow governments run by secret governors it appoints to oversee the Sharia courts and levy taxes from the population. It orders the killing or intimidation of tribal leaders or civilians who do not support them. The organisation is so well run that every winter it conducts a formal campaign review and Mullah Omar announces his intentions for the new year. The council has alliances with the other two powerful insurgent networks run by Afghan leaders, based in the Pakistani cities of Miran Shah and Peshawar.
Afghan leaders, western diplomats and military officers complained for years that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, could have arrested them if they had had the will. For the past year, several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been helping Mr Karzai to begin behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Some were flown to the Maldives for talks. Taliban spokesmen have derided the reconciliation programme, which was announced at a London conference in January and involves accepting the Kabul government's legitimacy in return for jobs and amnesty.
Baradar was passing messages between figures close to both Mr Karzai and Mullah Omar. The chance of Baradar switching sides was probably remote but he was still a critical link. Pakistan, however, was left out. In January, Gen David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, hinted at a possible role for Pakistan in the talks. Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of Pakistan's army staff, whom Time magazine described as "democracy's best friend", told reporters on February 1 that he was against Talibanisation, adding "we have opened all doors" in co-operating with Nato and Afghan forces.
Shortly after, Baradar was seized in Karachi. But Baradar is an opportunity for Pakistan to own the negotiations, said Kamran Bokhari, the Middle East and South Asia director for Stratfor, a Texas-based company that analyses security intelligence. "There are a lot of players involved in the reconciliation talks but ultimately, from the Pakistani point of view, all roads to Kabul go through Islamabad."
It may backfire if Mullah Zakir or a similar hardliner takes over, said the state department official. "That now leaves Pakistan holding the bag of Baradar, seeking to insert themselves again as our sole interlocutors with the pipeline to the Taliban for any future negotiations. It is kind of difficult to have an effective conduit when one end is completely stopped-up, or unwilling to open itself to dialogue. And that is where I think we now stand, at least as long as the more extreme Mullah Zakir is there to whisper as the evil Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings into Mullah Omar's ear, reinforcing a more strident Taliban position against negotiated reconciliation."
* With additional reporting by Nasir Khan in Lahore and Reuters