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So, What’s General Kayani Up To?

Posted by on February 18th, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

Yes, this is going to be yet another post about the detention of Taliban No.2 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, because now we’ve news that two other Taliban leaders have been arrested in Pakistan.

Afghan officials said the Taliban’s “shadow governors” for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had been detained in Pakistan by officials there. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s leader in Kunduz, was detained in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan Province was also captured in an undisclosed Pakistani city, they said.

The arrests come on the heels of the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander and the deputy to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the movement’s founder. Mr. Baradar was arrested in a joint operation by the C.I.A. and the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

The possibility that Pakistan has finally, after all these years, come fully “onside” with America’s War On Terror(tm) has every national security, foreign policy and Pakistan writer wondering whether Pakistan’s military head, General Kayani, is really onside or whether he’s playing a deeper game. The implications are huge. Right now, this is the biggest foreign policy news in town.

First, it’s noteworthy that everyone’s wondering what Kayani is up to – not President Zardari or Prime Minsiter Gilani. That speaks volumes about who the real power in Pakistan resides with. OK, we’ve all known that all along, but now it’s very much out in the open.

Secondly, there’s very real puzzlement over what Kayani is thinking. The mainstream narrative, bolstered by puff pieces suggesting that America’s Admiral Mullen has a great working relationship with Kayani, is that the Pakistani military leader has “seen the light” and decided that the Taliban in all their forms are more hassle than asset. It seems many observers are skeptical of this interpretation; every time senior US military figures have met Kayani we’ve been given similiar pieces saying the very same thing which until now have turned out to be mostly wishful thinking. It seems the “quiet man” works some kind of Jedi mind trick on his opposite numbers and they then tell the US press that he’s a hardass but he’s workable with.

Yet if there’s one thing that’s certain about Kayani it’s that he looks after Kayani’s interests first, the Pakistani military’s interests second, and Pakistan’s third. America’s national interest comes somewhere down the list, probably after China’s. And all these puff pieces never mention that Kayani was head of the ISI at the time of the 2006 Mumbai bombings, which Indian intelligence was just as sure were an ISI-led operation as the later 2008 attacks launched while Kayani was head of Pakistan’s whole military. He’s very definitely capable of playing hardball with the best.

Eric Martin yesterday mentioned a theory entertained by Kevin Drum, among others – that Baradar, while moderate by Taliban standards, was too much of a loose cannon for Kayani’s taste, initiating negotiations with the Afghan government without the Pakistani military and ISI’s imprimatur. That’s looking more and more like the case. Via noted Afghanistan-based expert Alex Strick van Lins comes this:

Baradar’s arrest, first reported by The New York Times, also could jeopardize some of the peace overtures that are under way, the officials said.

U.N. officials told McClatchy that Baradar had facilitated an inconclusive meeting last month in Dubai between midlevel Taliban commanders and Kai Eide, the departing top U.N. official in Kabul.

It’s conceivable, however, that Pakistan could use Baradar’s capture to split the Taliban by offering a forum for him to negotiate with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

According to Vahid Mojdeh, a former Afghan official who worked under the Taliban, Baradar was instrumental in reining in insurgent violence, by banning sectarian killings and indiscriminate bombings.

“Baradar was an obstacle against al Qaida, who wanted to make an operation in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq,” Mojdeh said. “But Baradar would not allow them to kill Shias” — the minority Muslim sect — “or set off explosions in crowded places.”

Pakistani analysts said Baradar’s capture suggested either that Islamabad had abandoned its attempt to promote peace talks or the Taliban number two had fallen afoul of the Pakistani authorities. Analysts said Baradar was the most likely point of contact for any future talks.

“This is inexplicable. Pakistan has destroyed its own credentials as a mediator between Taliban and Americans. And the trust that might have existed between Taliban and Pakistan is shattered completely,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban.

He added: “Mullah Baradar was talking peace. … For the time being, there are no prospects for talks. I think it’s now going to be a fight to the bitter end.”

However, Baradar’s replacement is widely expected to be Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Gitmo detainee released by the Bush administration who is widely seen as being a “moderate” in the same ways Baradar is.

As Seth Jones (from RAND) explains in his excellent profile, Mullah Zakir wasted little time rejoining his Taliban brothers in their fight against ISAF and ANSF forces, quickly assuming another high-level position within the organization as the Overall Emir for South Afghanistan (responsible for a huge area including the vital provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban’s primary safe haven and command and control (C2) base as well as the logistical hub for Taliban supply, finance, and drug smuggling). Clearly, the fact that Mullah Zakir was appointed to such a prominent position almost immediately after his release speaks to his stature within the organization and helps to confirm reports of his close relationship with both Mullah Omar and Mullah Baradar. Mullah Zakir quickly developed a reputation as a charismatic and effective leader, helping to increase the level and severity of IED attacks across RC-South while simultaneously bolstering the Taliban shadow governance system and minimizing Taliban excesses that could cost them valuable popular support among locals.

In fact, multiple reports suggest that Mullah Zakir was one of the primary authors of the 2009 Taliban Code of Conduct (along with Mullah Baradar). This document (and the enforcement of its provisions) has been critical during the Taliban’s campaign to bolster their control and influence across the country, especially in RC-South – where ISAF leaders have chosen to focus the initial elements of the US “surge” beginning with Operation Moshtarak in Marjah. In addition to his prominent role as the overall emir of South Afghanistan, I also assess that Mullah Zakir plays an important role within the Taliban’s Shura (“council”), which oversees and plans all QST operations from Pakistan. He is likely the de-facto replacement for Mullah Dadullah Lang (EKIA in May 07) as the Chief of the Taliban Military Commission and is also assessed to run the important Accountability Commission (responsible for implementing the Taliban Code of Conduct and acting as the Taliban’s version of “internal affairs”). As the head of these two committees, Mullah Zakir essentially runs both the Taliban’s lethal and non-lethal operations across the entire country, making him an extremely influential leader within the organization.

Just as moderate, but more susceptible to Pakistani ISI control, perhaps?

We’ll know more when we find out who Mullah Zakir selects as the replacements for the provincial commanders in Kunduz and Baghlan. If both are more moderate but also less inclined to go off negotiating on their ownsomes then its Kayani for the win.

That would be perfectly in keeping with my own feeling that Afghanistan’s Karzai is ready to do any peace deal he can to save his nation more years of bloodshed, and isn’t especially caring about whether he;s negotiating from a position of strength. If, as I also believe, the Obama administration and its key Western allies have, post London conference, decided to go along with Karzai’s plan while spending the next six months creating a narrative of “success” for domestic consumption, then there will be a happy set of circumstances where Pakistan’s Kayani gets to have his cake and eat it too. Still, we’re all playing something which is close kin to ”Kremlinology” here.

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