As the US withdrawal is approaching fast, Pakistan needs to tread carefully for any further instability in Afghanistan will directly impact Pakistan
It appears that the time for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is approaching fast. On February 25, 2019, a very senior leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Doha, Qatar, where he was expected to meet American officials. Mullah Baradar aka Mullah Akhund is around 50 now and has been associated with the Taliban for at least quarter of a century. He was part of the group that for the first time in the mid-1990s established the Taliban. The same group occupied Kabul in 1996.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the first two countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. During their five-year rule over Afghanistan, in addition to Pakistan, only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the two other countries that not only officially acknowledged the Taliban government but also opened the Taliban embassies in their capitals and offered state protocols. The Taliban leaders were free to move around with full freedom, and they were given all facilities in their living and accommodation.
Mullah Baradar belongs to the Urozgan province in Afghanistan that is adjacent to Kandahar near the border with Pakistan. Urozgan is mostly a tribal area and is considered one of the most backward among the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Urozgan was known to have a combined Hazara and Pashtun population, but after the end of the Taliban government in 2001, the new government of Afghanistan divided Urozgan into two, and the province of Daikundi was created with mostly Hazara people; since then Urozgan has almost all Pashtun population.
Belonging to Popalzai tribe, Mullah Baradar is a Durrani Pashtun and in the 1980s, when he was still a young man, joined the Mujahideen who were fighting with the help from General Ziaul Haq against the Soviet forces. It is reported that Mullah Baradar was a close associate of Mullah Omar who had established a large seminary in Kandahar after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. They started recruiting the youngsters and in this process were facilitated by General Hameed Gul who kept boasting about it in his numerous interviews available on the YouTube.
In 1996, when the Taliban completed their conquest of Kabul, Mullah Baradar was appointed the governor of Herat and Nimruz provinces. Soon he became corps commander of the entire western Afghanistan and also held high positions in the ministry of defence. After the events of September, 2001, when the US forces invaded Afghanistan they were supported by the Northern Alliance consisting of mostly non-Pashtun fighters. Mullah Baradar fought against the combined forces of the Northern Alliance and the US, failing which he managed to escape, some say on a motorbike with Mullah Omar.
In December 2001, an agreement was reached in Bonn, Germany, in which Hamid Karzai was recognized as the interim leader of Afghanistan and then as the president of the country. Mullah Baradar initiated attacks against the new Afghan government and then the US accused him of leading an Afghan Shura in Quetta, Pakistan. Nearly after ten years the Pakistani forces arrested Mullah Baradar in 2010. According to some sources he was captured in Karachi in February 2010 in a joint operation conducted by the Pakistani and US forces. Then for the next couple of years there was not much in the news about him.
After some time there was some talk about releasing Taliban leaders including Mullah Baradar so that peace negotiations could be initiated. For the next five years there were conflicting reports about Mullah Baradar, some reported he was involved in secret talks, some other mentioned he was still under Pakistani custody. Around five months back in October 2018 it was reported that the Pakistani government had released him with some other Taliban leaders such as Mullah Abdus Samad Sani and Mullah Abdul Rasul. Then the rumour circulated that he was living in Karachi with his family.
For his release, Zalmy Khalilzad, the special American envoy for Afghanistan, had played an important role because he wanted to further the process of negotiations. After the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death in October, 2016, Mullah Baradar had emerged as the most senior leader of the Afghan Taliban. It is pertinent to remember that Mullah Mohammad Rasul was the leader of the high council of Afghan Islamic Emirate, after he refused to pledge allegiance to another Taliban leader Mullah Hebatullah Akhundzada. The release of Mullah Baradar and arrival in Qatar after eight years in Pakistani custody has paved the way for peace negotiations.
Now Mullah Baradar is the chief of the Taliban office in Qatar. It has been anticipated that all foreign forces would leave Afghanistan in the next 18 months or by the end of 2020 at the latest. The black list imposed on the Taliban will be removed and all restriction on their travels will also be lifted. The Taliban are likely to promise that they would not allow safe havens to terrorist organisations such as Daesh or IS in areas under the Taliban control. We need to remember that in 2014, the then president of America, Barack Obama had withdrawn most of the US forces from Afghanistan.
After this withdrawal the Taliban influence had increased and vast regions of Afghanistan had come under their control. An interesting point to note is that the Taliban do not want to talk to the government in Afghanistan, neither do they recognize its legitimacy. According to the Taliban the present government in Afghanistan is a puppet and there is no use talking to it. In response, President Ashraf Ghani has invited the Taliban to open their offices anywhere they want in Afghanistan. The Taliban have shunned this offer and only want to talk to America directly.
An analogy can be drawn with the Indian Occupied Kashmir where elections are held but the government mostly serves as a puppet to be controlled by New Delhi. The involvement of the people of Kashmir is minimal in elections. Similarly, in Afghanistan too, during the past almost two decades people normally don’t participate in elections mostly for fear of being attacked by the anti-government militants. Another Taliban leader Sher Muhammad Stanikzai has announced that the Taliban do not want to conquer the whole of Afghanistan by force -- as they did in 1996 -- because it would not result in any lasting peace.
For now the sole demand of the Taliban is a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Last month, on February 18, the Taliban leaders were supposed to meet an American delegation and the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, but the meeting was canceled by the Taliban at the last minute. The cancellation displayed internal differences among the Taliban, whereas Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, disclosed that the meeting was cancelled because of the travel sanctions imposed on them by the UN and the USA. That was the time when the Saudi crown prince was also in Pakistan.
There were unconfirmed reports that the crown prince would also like to meet the Taliban leaders but it never happened. Though the Taliban blamed travel sanctions for the cancellation, the argument does not hold as they had been travelling to countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Now, the presence of Mullah Baradar in Qatar has confirmed that there will be substantial progress in peace negotiations. But there is a strong possibility that after the US withdrawal this region may once again see bloodshed. The divide between the Pashtun and non-Pashtun population in Afghanistan is wide and clear.
There is a possibility that after the consolidation of the Taliban rule in mostly Pashtun areas, northern Afghanistan may become an autonomous region as had happened in Iraq after the US invasion. Pakistan needs to tread carefully in this matter, for any further fierce fighting and instability in Afghanistan will directly impact Pakistan, as has been happening for the past 40 years.