Taliban co-founder and second-in-command, Abdul Ghani Baradar, led the movement to its latest victory in Afghanistan. This is the story of how he got there.
Even by the twists and turns of Afghan history, summer 2021 was remarkable. In a dizzyingly rapid offensive, the Taliban insurgency that had waged a twenty-year war overran nearly the entire country, much of it without fighting, and sent the internationally recognised regime led by Ashraf Ghani scrambling in flight.
The downward trajectory of the Afghan government, and perhaps the careers of several militia commanders and oligarchs on whom it partly rested, contrasted sharply with its opponents; internationally isolated and ostracised for the better part of a quarter-century, the Taliban completed the last leg of their return to power with astonishing ease.
These ups and downs can be traced in the extraordinary career of Taliban second-in-command, and perhaps prospective Afghan ruler, Abdul-Ghani Baradar.
A public recitation at the Kabul palace of the Quranic chapter Nasr, which exhorts penitence and praise to Allah by triumphant Muslims, was entirely in keeping with the culture of the student networks in rural Afghanistan that bred the Taliban movement.
A veteran of such networks, Abdul-Ghani Baradar had fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan alongside his long standing friend Mullah Mohammed Omar, whom he helped co-found the Taliban emirate in the mid-1990s.
Military experience against the Soviets was common among many Afghan commanders and factions in that period, including the rival Jamiat party. What distinguished the early Taliban movement was its discipline, cohesion and a very public pietism coloured by a strict, occasionally severe, interpretation of Islamic law, which enabled it to overrun disunited and often predatory militias.
As the Taliban spread outside its southern Afghan heartland, Baradar soon took up a leading military role. The campaign to capture Ghaur from the renowned Jamiat commander Alaauddin Khan in 1996 – where Baradar waited out his opponents from the hills before mounting an ambush – typified a crafty patience that occasionally frustrated such colleagues as the brutal, daring Daddullah Lang.
Nonetheless by 2001, Baradar and Daddullah had helped push the coalition of northern militias that opposed them to the edge of the Tajikistan border. The Taliban emirate was at the brink of victory when Al Qaeda’s attack provoked the United States into invading Afghanistan.
The American invasion injected new momentum into the leading opposition militias led by Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ata Noor and Muhammad Muhaqqiq. Baradar and Daddullah withdrew into the Taliban’s northern stronghold, Kunduz, where they were besieged by land and air.
Under the bone-juddering pressure of the United States’ airpower, Mullah Fazil and governor-general Nurullah Nuri agreed to surrender in return for Dostum’s amnesty. Instead, both were turned over to the United States, which imprisoned them in Guantanamo Bay. Baradar and Daddullah tactfully stole away, leaving Dostum’s militia slaughtering Taliban captives in their wake.
Initially rumoured slain, Baradar ended up in Kandahar, which as the Taliban’s last stronghold, soon came under siege by the United States and the same militias that the Taliban had ousted in 1994. Denied repeated attempts to surrender by the United States, Omar slipped into the maquis, leaving Baradar and defence minister Obaidullah Akhund to lead the garrison. Realising that it was impossible to hold the city, they scoured the American-backed coalition for a reasonable opponent to whom they could surrender, and soon fixed on Hamid Karzai.
Karzai, who shared Baradar’s Popalzai clan background and came from an elite family from the monarchic period, was dramatically landed by the United States into southern Afghanistan. But Karzai’s personal willingness to give an amnesty was overruled by American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, whose kill-and-capture policy lent further incentive to opposition militias to hunt Taliban to the finish.
“Karzai is the slave of two houses,” Baradar once said with reference to the opposition militias and the United States, “…Slavery cannot create peace.”
Karzai could not, in the Taliban’s view, guarantee any promises he made while supported by an escalatory power.
Capture and release
Thus by 2003, the Taliban leadership had reorganised, with Quetta emerging as a stronghold just across the Pakistani border. Shadowy as ever, Omar deputised Obaidullah and Baradar to plan the Taliban insurgency. Originally a patchwork and improvisational affair, the insurgency’s early years featured frequent friction with the daring but largely autonomous Daddullah, who often acted on his own.
When Daddullah was killed in battle, his brother Mansur Bakht accused Baradar of having sold him out – prompting Omar to make a rare intrusion and sack Bakht. In fact the claim was baseless; only a few months after Daddullah, British troops were convinced they had killed Baradar.
Thereafter Baradar played a major role in setting up the largely effective insurgent organisation – featuring military structures, coordination and shadow government – that drew together Taliban fronts in the field and has typified the Taliban insurgency since.
The best-known contribution was a leaflet on rules, regulations and restrictions he published in 2009 in coordination with Muhammad Yasir, a veteran insurgent from the 1980s. Baradar’s easy going personality and ability to mediate between colleagues was a key factor in setting up Taliban strategy. It also belied the increasing ferocity of the war on both sides.
But Baradar’s strategy was rudely interrupted, just prior to a massive American campaign, in February 2010 when he was imprisoned by Pakistan. Initially hailing the move, Washington balked when Pakistan’s spies refrained from turning over their captive.
Karzai added fuel to the fire when, drawing on their shared Popalzai clan, he claimed that he had been attempting to negotiate a peace with Baradar. And this, in turn, sparked considerable controversy and suspicion in Washington’s “Af-Pak” strategy between Kabul and Islamabad.
After initial indignation at Islamabad – especially because Baradar’s capture coincided with the death in Pakistani captivity of his colleague Obaidullah Akhund, imprisoned three years earlier – the Taliban never seemed to have taken Karzai’s claims seriously.
Rather than treating Baradar with the suspicion that would have been appropriate had he really gone behind their backs, his colleagues continued to afford him respect. After his upgrade to a house arrest in 2013, Baradar even played a role in mediating disputes among members of the movement.
But it was not until the diplomatic process had begun in full force during 2018 that he was fully released, and immediately promoted to oversee the negotiations process as one of three lieutenants to Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada. His former counterpart Fazil Mazlumyar was also released from prison, and joined him. This process culminated in the Doha Accord of February 2020, signed with American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, which stipulated an American withdrawal in spring 2021.
Nonetheless, the negotiations process was fraught with claims that the Doha-based Taliban led by Baradar had no control over their fighters in the field. This was belied by both Baradar’s historical role – a primarily military one – as well as by the fact that Taliban negotiators often coordinated with field commanders.
And it was entirely put to rest with the sudden speed with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan – thrusting aside old opponents such as Noor and Dostum with contemptuous ease.
Shortly after Ghani’s flight from Kabul and the Taliban takeover, Baradar arrived at the capital to assume command with a nearly disarming but entirely typical understatement. So far, the Taliban have managed to enforce security while passing an amnesty whose beneficiaries include, among others, Baradar’s old sparring partner Karzai.
Like the Taliban’s takeover, it is a sudden and curious twist in a curious tale.