Yesterday, the New York Times broke the story that one of the Taliban’s top military commanders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had been captured in Karachi during a joint raid by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the CIA. Baradar is reportedly second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban’s loose hierarchy. The Times reported this as a huge victory, and the Obama administration took a few well-deserved bows.
At first blush, and based solely on the Times’s reporting and the administration’s reaction, this did indeed appear to be a major achievement. We noticed something odd with the triumphant tone, however. The article published yesterday noted that Baradar had been one of the Taliban’s “most approachable leaders” and one of the few Taliban commanders willing to negotiate with President Karzai’s government.
This struck us as discordant with the dramatic raid, capture, and interrogation of Baradar initially described by the Times. Baradar was not captured in a spider hole, like Saddam Hussein was, or hiding out in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was. Instead, it appeared that his location was not much of a secret at all.
At first we wrote this off as more evidence of the on-again/off-again “cooperation” we receive from the Pakistani intelligence service, and Baradar’s capture was a good sign it was on again. But, according to new reporting by the Times today, the reality is far more complicated.
Today, the Times is reporting that the real story behind Baradar’s capture is that Pakistan wanted to gain a place at the table in negotiations between the U.S. and Karzai and the Taliban.
Specifically, Baradar, it turns out, was one of Karzai’s main contacts with the Taliban for years, and he was at the center of efforts to negotiate a peace with the Taliban. Pakistan was frustrated at being excluded from the talks, so it snatched up Baradar to gain an advantage.
The Times quotes an unnamed American intelligence official: “I know that our people had been in touch with people around [Baradar] and were negotiating with him. So it doesn’t make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us. And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say.” If this is true, then the capture of Baradar is not exactly what it first appeared. And if Baradar was as central to Karzai’s and America’s efforts to negotiate with the Taliban as the article suggests, then there appears to be significant costs to the capture. Perhaps it was even unhelpful to Karzai and the U.S.
Does capturing Baradar really further U.S. strategy? (Perhaps the administration did not view him as a valuable contact and thought he would be more useful in custody and subject to interrogation.) Or does it actually harm U.S. strategy? Was it forced on the Obama administration by the Pakistanis? If so, does the administration’s triumphant tone reflect its true feelings about the importance of capturing Baradar, or is it a smokescreen?
The fact that the New York Times, not known for its strength of objectivity in covering the Obama administration, is reporting this suggests to us that there’s a better-than-even chance that the administration is trying to turn a lemon into lemonade.
Its public messaging is that the capture of Baradar is a huge win in the ongoing war with the Taliban. But is the administration concealing the downsides of the capture? We hope not. And we certainly hope the administration is not crowing about capturing Baradar in Pakistan in order to distract from the difficulties it has had on the home front with the KSM trial and Mirandizing the Christmas bomber. But if the Times story is accurate, the evidence is beginning to tilt in the wrong direction.
— Dana M. Perino is former press secretary to Pres. George W. Bush. Bill Burck is a former federal prosecutor and deputy counsel to President Bush.