Back in February, when the blogosphere was all aflutter at the capture of Mullah Baradar, a high-ranking Taliban official, I tried to issue a caution:
We paid a price for this, keep an eye out for what it might be… Much like the assassination of Nek Mohammed is what gave us five years of Baitullah Mehsud, there is a chance that Baradar’s successor will be much worse.
Of course, later it came out that the CIA-ISI operation was meant, in essence, to undermine the first stages of political reconciliation talks with the Quetta Shurt Taliban—something I can only call unproductive at its most charitable. This kind of behavior is, sadly, not out of the ordinary for the U.S. in Pakistan: we have an established, consistent record of rejecting talks, rejecting negotiations, and reneging on agreements in favor of violence and arrests. This, too, will force us to pay a very high cost when our leaders eventually wake up and realize they have to demonstrate good faith to get anything done.
Anyway, so now Newsweek is reporting on who comes after Baradar. And it raises a lot more questions:
A top Taliban intelligence officer and several other knowledgeable insurgent sources tell NEWSWEEK that the insurgency’s top commanders named two replacements for Baradar last month at a shura—or senior council meeting—near the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta. The anointees: Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo inmate and ruthless field commander; and Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, a portly financial and logistical expert who commands a large militia force…
To this end, the Taliban are emphasizing that Zakir’s and Mansoor’s appointments were made with Mullah Omar’s explicit consent. But according to other fighters, few people truly believe Omar had any say in the matter. The mullah has not been seen or heard from since November 2001, when he fled Kandahar on the back of Baradar’s motorcycle. As a result, most Taliban are skeptical of claims or rumors that Zakir and Mansoor—or any Taliban commanders, for that matter—have had direct contact with their missing leader.
There’s a lot to unravel here. For one, I’d be curious as to what, exactly, a “top Taliban intelligence officer” really is. They do not, as best I know, have a formalized intelligence organization, even though I’d describe their intelligence gathering capability as highly complex. If they do have members dedicated to analyzing and acting on intelligence—if their organization is not, as most assume, so cellular and distributed that individual groups run their own, local collection—then that is actually very interesting information, and suggests a hierarchy I’d never really had reason to assume exists.
Secondly, if Mansoor’s appointment was only decided last month—December of 2010—then why was Syed Saleem Shahzad reporting on it last February? It could be that they were confirming, or re-upping Mansoor’s promotion, and maybe adding Zakir to the mix. But that description sounds damned fishy. The Taliban wouldn’t take 10 months to name a replacement for a senior official like this.
Lastly, there’s the claim that Mullah Omar hasn’t been seen or heard from since 2001. That is, flatly wrong, unless you plan on discounting (for example) data like this intermediated interview with the New York Times in 2007. Later that year, Taliban commanders said Omar had reached out to them to expand their suicide operations. And in 2010, a senior ISI official who once trained Mullah Omar was giving out hints about how much the one-eyed Mullah loathes the Taliban (interestingly, he was later abducted in Waziristan and hasn’t been seen since a ransom video posted to the Internet last July).
Anyway, so the Newsweek story has some weird omissions and a few twists of what I thought were facts, so I am expressing skepticism that is means very much. But here’s what I find interesting: assuming the bare bones of the story are true—that the relatively moderate Baradar (he wrote the latest Taliban conduct manual, in which he urges less violence and less abuse of opponents and civilians) has been replaced by men like Zakir and Mansoor—then we are far, far worse off because of last February’s capture. Zakir has a reputation for viciousness that is matched only by maybe Hekmatyar—and he commands the Taliban forces in Helmand and Nimroz. Mansoor runs a militia force in Kandahar. Neither of these men are more moderate than Baradar, and in fact we can safely assume they will double-down on their fighters and on the spread of militancy come Spring. We can also safely assume they are less interested than Baradar in any sort of negotiated end to the fighting.
So, in the last year we’ve seen a moderate voice for reconciliation arrested by the CIA, and the promotion of two vicious, more extreme, and less amenable commanders rise to take his place. The prospects of a negotiated end to the war gets further away the more we try to radicalize the Taliban. Yet, this is what victory in Southern Afghanistan looks like to the U.S. military leadership.