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Why Taliban capture could be huge

By Brian Fishman, Special to CNN
  • Capture of Taliban commander could disrupt the group's operations, says Brian Fishman
  • He says the capture signals a break with Pakistan's tradition of sheltering the Taliban
  • He says Pakistan now sees the Taliban as a threat to its security
  • Fishman: Can pressure from Pakistan prompt Taliban to seek negotiated settlement?

Editor's note: Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank focused on innovative ideas across the political spectrum, and a research fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.

(CNN) -- The capture of the Afghan Taliban's operational commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Pakistani city of Karachi is a signature success for the United States' effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it does not indicate that the insurgent movement will collapse.

In the short run, local Taliban commanders will be able to maintain the movement's operational effectiveness against U.S. and NATO troops. Over the long term, however, increased collaboration between American and Pakistani intelligence agencies could prove debilitating for the movement.

U.S. and Pakistani officials likely hope the collaboration will force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

The capture of any militant leader is important for three reasons. The first is the removal of a valuable commander from the battlefield. The second is the uncertainty introduced in a militant network by the revelation that their security has been breached. The third is the intelligence that can be gained from the prisoner.

Although removing the Taliban's operational commander during a major battle between NATO forces and the Taliban in the Afghan city of Marja is important, the intelligence story is far more important in this case because Mullah Baradar was apprehended in a joint operation between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency.

Since 9/11, such close collaboration has been rare. The ISI supported the rise of the Afghan Taliban in the early 1990s and has been reluctant to abandon support for the movement since 9/11 despite attacks by al Qaeda inside Pakistan and the rise of a Pakistani Taliban movement viscerally hostile to the Pakistani state.

Indeed, the Afghan Taliban's leadership has been based inside Pakistan since the U.S. and NATO invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Wary that the United States would leave Afghanistan without establishing a functional government, Pakistan maintained ties to the Afghan Taliban in case they returned to power in Kabul. Likewise, the Afghan Taliban has always been careful to avoid offending their Pakistani suitor.

But Pakistan's strategic calculation has shifted in recent months because of the growth and violence of Pakistani Taliban groups that are virulently opposed to the Pakistani state. Although the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Baradar and Mullah Omar rhetorically oppose attacks inside Pakistan, they cooperate with Pakistani Taliban groups that conduct murderous suicide attacks in Pakistani cities.

Pakistan has taken a much more aggressive stance against militants from the Pakistani Taliban in recent months, but until the arrest of Mullah Baradar had not produced a major victory against the Afghan Taliban leadership in Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban leadership will be deeply unnerved by the collaboration between the ISI and CIA because they will be forced to contemplate how the intelligence agencies gathered the information that led to Mullah Baradar's capture and, just as importantly, what information he has supplied since then. Did he fail to follow security procedures? Is there a leak in the group? What else does the ISI know? Will Mullah Baradar try to negotiate on behalf of the Taliban from prison?

The Afghan Taliban's leaders will not be able to answer any of these questions, and that ambiguity is a weapon to undermine an organization like the Taliban that depends on trust.

Despite the uncertainty Mullah Baradar's capture is likely to produce within the Afghan Taliban, the group will not fall apart. But it will have to respond. Mullah Omar, the overall leader of the Afghan Taliban, will likely have to demonstrate his personal security and control over the movement by releasing a statement of some kind. A new operational commander will be named. Karachi, where Mullah Baradar was captured, may be deemed unsafe.

But the most important decisions the Afghan Taliban must make involves their relationship with the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani ISI. The Afghan Taliban may try to mollify Pakistan's security forces by increasing pressure on anti-Pakistan militants to slow or cease their attacks on the Pakistani state. Such an outcome is much more likely than a wholesale change in strategy that would lead to a direct confrontation between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani state.

The biggest strategic question is whether pressure from the ISI can compel the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. Indeed, rumors that Mullah Baradar was more inclined to negotiations than Mullah Omar already has generated speculation that his incarceration will produce a channel for negotiations.

Mullah Baradar's capture will be little aid for the U.S. Marines dodging improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Marja, but Pakistan's decision to ratchet up pressure on the Afghan Taliban leadership inside its borders is a potential sea change that could undermine the militants' entire strategic position. And so the biggest question today is not what the Afghan Taliban will do now that Mullah Baradar has been captured, it is whether Pakistan's ISI will keep the pressure on them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian Fishman.