This Man Is Revered Among the Taliban. Can He End the Afghan War?

Afghan soldiers being trained by Americans in 2016. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
Afghan soldiers being trained by Americans in 2016. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

On Thursday, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who founded the movement with Mullah Mohammad Omar in 1993, as the chief negotiator in the peace talks with the United States, being held in Qatar.

Mr. Baradar, who was also appointed as deputy to the Taliban chief Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, is expected to travel soon to Doha to join the peace talks with the American peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Mr. Baradar is revered among the Taliban as a charismatic military leader and a deeply religious figure who still reflects the origins of the Taliban movement, when it was founded to end the Afghan civil war and warlordism in the mid-1990s.

He was the first senior Taliban leader to see the futility and waste of war and held secret peace talks in 2009 with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and indirectly with the United States and the NATO forces.

Pakistan, then the principal backer of the Taliban, brought these tentative negotiations to an end by arresting Mr. Baradar in February 2010 in Karachi and exposing the interlocutors. In arresting him, Islamabad sent out a harsh message to the Taliban and the Afghan government not to engage in political processes that contradicted its policy in Afghanistan. Mr. Baradar’s arrest created intense antagonism between Kabul and Islamabad and was deeply resented by the Taliban, which revered Mr. Baradar as one of their founder leaders.

After pressure from the United States and Qatar, Pakistan released Mr. Baradar in October after eight and a half years. He stayed in the country for medical treatment. Mr. Baradar’s release and his subsequent elevation as the chief negotiator have raised hopes that Pakistan’s attitude to the peace process and its military’s antipathy to the Taliban leaders seeking peace has clearly changed.

Pakistan has been politically isolated in the region for its unwillingness to help end the Afghan war. And the damage done by the Pakistani Taliban, a collective of jihadist groups, which attacks targets in Pakistan and then retreats into Afghanistan, has changed Islamabad’s calculus. The ongoing talks between the Americans and the Taliban have made it clear that the Taliban will no longer support or give sanctuary to terrorist groups from outside Afghanistan.

Western diplomats in Islamabad now praise the military for facilitating rather than hindering Mr. Khalilzad’s mission. Whether Pakistan’s support for the peace process is a strategic change of direction that will affect the broader region remains to be seen, but Pakistan’s military has reached out to Indian military and civilian leaders to restart talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Apart from Pakistan’s support for Mr. Khalilzad’s mission, the stature of Mr. Baradar within the Taliban movement does bolster the chances of peace. I met Mr. Baradar in the late 1990s after the Taliban had captured Kabul. He had been governor of Herat province and was the deputy minister of defense for the Taliban when the group fell in 2001.

Mr. Baradar was a moderate on social issues and argued for maintaining relationships with the West and Afghanistan’s neighbors. The hard-liners among the Taliban under the influence of Osama bin Laden had forced Western aid agencies to leave Afghanistan, and the country faced a severe famine and economic crisis. Mr. Baradar argued against isolating Afghanistan and cutting off all aid. He was aware of his country’s dependence on financial aid from the West.

Although he had opposed the presence of bin Laden in Afghanistan after Mullah Omar gave him sanctuary in 1996, Mr. Baradar stayed close to Mullah Omar in Kandahar after their regime fell.

Owing to his impeccable record of service to the Taliban cause, no other Taliban leader will be able to contradict Mr. Baradar if and when he takes steps toward peace. He is also the most likely figure to sell peace to the more militant Taliban commanders, who are inclined to continue fighting and want to claim total victory and impose a Shariah system on the country as they did in the 1990s.

The United States will benefit from his presence in the Qatar talks, as Mr. Khalilzad and his colleagues will be speaking to a prominent and decisive Taliban leader who can make decisions.

Mr. Khalilzad’s team has made significant headway, and American and Taliban officials have “agreed in principle to the framework” of a peace deal in which the Taliban promise not to host terrorist groups in the future and to help the United States rid Afghanistan of the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The deal could lead to a full pullout of American troops in return for a cease-fire and Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

Major questions remain to be resolved. The Taliban want an American troop withdrawal announced and their prisoners freed from Afghan jails as an immediate first step. The Americans have won a pledge from the Taliban that Afghan soil will never be used again by terrorist groups. The United States is also insisting on a Taliban cease-fire with both American and Afghan forces and an agreement to start talks on the future political setup with President Ashraf Ghani and the Kabul government.

So far the Taliban have refused to meet with Mr. Ghani and his government, describing them as mere stooges. Such a political position is unsustainable if the Taliban are really serious about ending the war. Mr. Baradar has a history of speaking to all Afghan leaders and he might be able to persuade the Taliban to reconsider the position.

And the promise of continued economic aid from the United States and NATO countries once a peace agreement is reached could be an important factor in persuading the Taliban to conclude a peace agreement.

Despite the acute differences among the regional players — Iran and the Gulf States, India and Pakistan, and Pakistan and Afghanistan — there is now a growing consensus on seeking an end to the war in Afghanistan. The long war has proved devastating to the neighboring states as terrorist groups find sanctuary in an increasingly lawless Afghanistan and the implementation of economic infrastructure projects is hindered.

Mr. Khalilzad’s experience with his country of birth, which stretches back to the Reagan administration during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, has undeniably helped. The Afghan people are now hopeful for the first time in decades that the 40-year-long war may just possibly be coming to an end.

Ahmed Rashid is the author, most recently, of Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West.

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