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US-PAKISTAN: Baradar Capture Signals Closer Intelligence Cooperation

Eli Clifton and Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Feb 16 2010 (IPS) - The capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar last week in a joint operation conducted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) represents the most important Taliban leader to be taken into custody since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The operation, which was conducted secretly in Karachi last week, marks a major blow to the Taliban’s leadership structure. Baradar was widely seen as the second in command under Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Baradar’s capture occurred last week but the New York Times held off on reporting on the joint CIA and ISI operation at the request of the White House.

The White House has been uncharacteristically quiet about the operation, but a senior administration official told ABC news that, “This is a huge catch,” and, “We haven’t had something like this since the start of the war.”

While refusing to discuss specifics of the operation, State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid, told reporters, “I do, however, want to reemphasise that the United States and Pakistan work closely together on security issues in combating terrorism that threatens both of our societies. We have had a close relationship with the Pakistani government and I suspect that we will continue to work with them in pursuance of a policy that blunts the ability of extremist groups to attack both of our societies.”

While the capture of Baradar, who was widely seen as the defacto leader of the Taliban insurgency, is a major boost to efforts by the U.S. and Pakistan to weaken the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the successful operation also marks a change in the rocky CIA-ISI relationship.

The relationship between the two agencies has been one of distrust as the CIA has accused the ISI of maintaining contacts with senior Taliban leadership and the ISI has charged the CIA with faulty cooperation.

CIA and ISI cooperation on such a highly sensitive operation and the severe blow inflicted to the Taliban’s leadership with the capture has led experts here in Washington to suggest that the operation may be a major victory for U.S. and Pakistani efforts to combat the Taliban insurgency.

“Depending on how much he is willing to reveal about the whereabouts and operational plans of the other Taliban commanders, his capture could be devastating for the Old Taliban,” wrote University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole on his blog.

But Stratfor’s Reva Bhalla speculated in a CNN interview that, “It’s hard to believe that this will lead to this huge intelligence coup, but if the Pakistanis are shifting their mode of cooperating [with the United States] that is significant.”

Baradar’s capture comes in the midst of a much heralded offensive by U.S. and Afghan forces in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.

The Marja offensive has been held up as an example of the counterinsurgency (COIN) operations which will ultimately determine the success or failure of the Obama administration’s 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.

Baradar’s role in the Afghan Taliban appears to have been pivotal in channeling donations from the Gulf to regional commanders in Afghanistan. The sums of money for which Baradar was ultimately responsible, according to some reports, exceeded the total Taliban revenue from trade and drug trade taxation.

Various scenarios have been discussed about what Baradar’s capture means for the future of both Pakistani and Afghan negotiations with the Taliban.

Bhalla suggested that Baradar’s capture may be a message from Pakistan, “telling Washington to deal with Islamabad – not Saudi Arabia – if it wants to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban.”

Baradar is widely understood to have represented Taliban leader Mullah Omar in secret negotiations brokered by Saudi Arabia.

The BBC has cited sources in Pakistan that allege the arrest may have been “orchestrated” by elements within the ISI to aid back-channel talks with Taliban commanders who were willing to negotiate.

This suggests a scenario in which Baradar was walked in, rather than arrested in a raid, under a pre-arranged deal with the CIA to pave the way for negotiations.

Other analysts, such as the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), and others, have received reports for several years that the ISI has pressured Taliban commanders to return to the battlefield inside Afghanistan or risk being handed over to the U.S. to be sent to Guantanamo Bay prison.

A scenario such as this would imply that the ISI arrested Baradar, sending the message to remaining Taliban members in Pakistan that they would no longer be granted sanctuary in Pakistan.

The important lesson from the capture of Baradar, according to many analysts, is the improved cooperation between the ISI and the CIA and the implications that this might have for the capture of Taliban leader Mullah Omar or al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

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