When the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, arrested the No. 2 official in the Afghan Taliban last January, NATO commanders hoped it was the beginning of a Pakistani crackdown on the Taliban and its safe havens in Pakistan. Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, as far from the Afghan border as you can get in Pakistan, in a raid conducted with American assistance. In the weeks that followed, almost two dozen other Taliban officials, including several “shadow governors” of Afghan provinces, were picked up by the Pakistanis. Then the arrests stopped and business went back to usual, Pakistan returned to being the Taliban’s protector and sanctuary.
“There is little evidence to suggest Mullah Omar, who calls himself the Commander of the Faithful, has ever been interested in negotiations with Karzai.”
Now some Pakistani officials are saying the arrests of Baradar and others were a signal to the insurgents not to flirt with the Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai. These officials claim Baradar was engaged in indirect contacts with Karzai to find a political settlement to the war without Pakistan’s involvement. This story has been circulating for some time but this is the most explicit version yet. Baradar is now said to be under house arrest in an ISI safe house and the others have all been released to go back to fighting NATO.
There are other conspiracy theories about why Baradar was arrested. One says he had a falling out with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader since its creation in 1994. Others say Baradar was giving assistance to the Pakistani Taliban in its war against the Pakistani state, thus his arrest was meant to signal that the Pakistani army would not tolerate Afghan Talibans helping Pakistani Taliban. Other theories suggest it was a mistake, the ISI did not know it was Baradar they had arrested until after he was caught.
The episode illustrates the complex relationship Pakistan’s army has long had with the Afghan Taliban. The army has seen the Taliban as a useful surrogate for controlling Afghanistan since Omar created the movement. The Pashtuns who make up the Taliban dominate the region along the 1,500-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognized the Omar’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. In those days, Pakistan provided the Taliban with weapons, cheap fuel, and hundreds of advisers to assist it in fighting the civil war with the Northern Alliance.
Pakistan pulled the rug out from under the Taliban in October 2001 when the U.S. gave President Pervez Musharraf an ultimatum to either cut off aid to the Taliban or be regarded as an enemy. Overnight the oil stopped and the advisers left. But the shut-off proved to be short lived and by 2002 Pakistan was already providing sanctuary for Mullah Omar. Sanctuary was followed by renewed training and assistance. Omar set up his capital in exile in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. According the dozens of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, the ISI was particularly active in the revival of the Taliban between 2004 and 2008. A recent study by the London School of Economics shows that the aid continues to this day, according to interviews with former and present Taliban officials.
But the relationship has always been scratchy. Islamabad seeks total control over the Taliban but the Taliban is jealous about its freedom. Even in the late 1990s when Mullah Omar needed the Pakistani advisers and oil to run his army, he refused to visit Islamabad and meet publicly with Musharraf. Omar also refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Durand Line, the border drawn by the British in the 19th century between the two countries. Islamabad tried to persuade Omar not to destroy the famous Buddha statutes in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, Omar went ahead and blew them up.
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan in the 1990s, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was turned over to the United States by the ISI after 9/11 and sent to Guantanamo prison, writes this about the organization that assisted his movement for years:
“The ISI acts at will, abusing and overruling the elected government whenever they deem it necessary. It shackles, detains and releases, and at times it assassinates. Its reach is far and it has roots inside and outside its own country. The wolf and the sheep may drink water from the same stream, but since the start of the jihad the ISI extended its roots deep into Afghanistan like a cancer puts down roots in the human body; every ruler of Afghanistan complained about it, but none could get rid of it.”
Zaeef recalls his arrest and detention in an ISI headquarters as being in the “devil’s workshop.”
There is little evidence to suggest Mullah Omar, who calls himself the Commander of the Faithful, has ever been interested in negotiations with Karzai. The one-eyed leader of the Quetta Shura never talks to the press, never meets with non-Muslims and is remarkably secretive. Osama bin Laden still regularly pledges his loyalty publicly to Omar. If Omar’s No. 2 was straying off the reservation last winter, Omar himself may have asked the ISI to rein him in. Omar seems convinced that time is on the side of the insurgency and that NATO will sooner rather than later give up the battle in Afghanistan. Karzai will then meet the same fate as the communists who Omar helped defeat in the 1980s, a noose. As long as the Pakistani army shares that conviction about NATO’s staying power, it will also maintain its ties to the Taliban.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His next book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad , will be published this winter.