Pakistan released Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar on September 21 after a three-year detention. He was the senior most member of the Taliban at the time of his arrest by a joint Pakistan military/U.S. intelligence team in Karachi in 2010.
There were conflicting theories about the reasons for his capture. It is believed that the U.S. authorities had located him and the Pakistani officials had no choice but to “extend cooperation” in making the arrest. Some believe that Mullah Biradar was in covert contact with the Americans for laying down the basis for reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that this had irked the Pakistan security establishment which could not digest any unilateral moves by Taliban leaders that bypassed it. That was enough excuse for restricting his freedom.
Yet another theory is that he was detained at the behest of the top Taliban leadership because of his alleged clandestine links with some American mediators.
Prolonging his detention did not deliver any political advantage for Pakistan. On the one hand, Islamabad got rid of a continuing and unwarranted headache by setting Biradar free; on the other it reciprocated Kabul’s overtures by accepting their demand for his release.
Handing him over to the authorities in Kabul would have created a permanent breach in relations with the Taliban leadership. So he has been released and allowed to go wherever he wants, and he may head to Qatar or Saudi Arabia where other senior cadre of the Taliban now live.
The point, however, is that by detaining Biradar, Pakistan has irrevocably damaged his credentials and his possible role as peace mediator. The Taliban have consistently followed the policy of not acknowledging any of its cadre detained either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Freed, they lose their relevance as far as the Taliban are concerned. Their bona fide becomes suspect for a number of reasons. In the eyes of the Taliban, detained and released cadre could have been tutored or even indoctrinated, and would speak the language of the captor. The foremost example of this is Mullah Zaeef, who was arrested by Pakistan in 2001 while he was still the Taliban’s ambassador in Islamabad.
The same thinking or yardstick would apply to Mullah Biradar. As Biradar is such a senior leader (or was), and is related to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he may prove to be of some help in providing insights into the Taliban mindset on issues such as the possible convergence of perceptions on how to mainstream the Taliban in the political and electoral processes of Afghanistan. He may even be useful in building bridges between the Taliban and the Americans, but certainly not between the Taliban and the Afghan regime.
The bedrock of the Taliban approach to any negotiated settlement remains the complete withdrawal of all coalition forces. This would continue to be the main stumbling block to any resolution of the conflict that is predicated upon the acceptance of the U.S. scheme of things in Afghanistan, including talks with the Karzai government.
Why was the Afghan government so desperately seeking the release of Mullah Biradar? For several years now Kabul has been investing a lot of labour and resources in opening up channels of communication with the Taliban leaders. The idea was to establish direct contacts with the movement’s leaders so that “other” mediators or “spoilers” could be bypassed and the Taliban pressured or persuaded to join the government in return for some representation in the various branches of the administration. This was never going to work. It was then decided to make efforts to secure the release of Mullah Biradar who could possibly use his clout and influence in helping to facilitate contacts between the regime and the Taliban leadership.
The Afghan authorities, rather than seeking the release of a prisoner, howsoever eminent and important, should realise that the long term and sustainable resolution to the conflict lies in creating a consensus, with all groups on board, that will ensure the withdrawal of all coalition forces from the country — a sine qua non for the country’s sovereignty and stability. A consensus that will be based on the following foundations: no foreign militants in Afghanistan; Afghan soil not to be allowed to be used against any other country; progress towards pluralism and institution-building; guaranteeing human rights and interacting with the international community.
Afghan institutions like its Parliament, Constitution, President are sacrosanct but more sacrosanct is the integrity, unity and sovereignty of the country.
Treating symptoms, sometimes successfully, can drive one into a state of complacency such that the focus shifts from resolving the underlying problem. The U.S. and its appendage in Kabul have been endeavouring to somehow diminish the strength or support for the insurgency by bribes, detentions, killings, weaning away the reconcilables, night raids, tortures — but the rebellion or insurgency has not abated or diminished in its intensity, vigour or the number of people offering their lives for a cause which they believe is just.
Just as rank and file Afghans rose to defend their liberty in the wake of the former Soviet Union’s military intervention in the 1980s, rank and file Afghans are resisting the U.S.-led military intervention that has lasted for nearly 12 years. That however is no proof that the people of Afghanistan support the Taliban’s policies overwhelmingly. It only demonstrates the will of the people in supporting a movement that is in the vanguard of a struggle to free the country of foreign occupation.
As for Pakistan, its short-sighted policy of detaining a person of such seniority and destroying his credibility and capability to facilitate useful, meaningful contacts with the Taliban for either Pakistan or America would be termed a grave error of judgment — whatever be the cause or motive for his detention.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a former Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan.)