Afghan officials say Pakistan's arrest of Taliban leader threatens peace talks

By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post staff writers
Saturday, April 10, 2010

KABUL -- Senior Afghan officials are now criticizing as counterproductive the arrest in Pakistan this year of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the No. 2 Taliban official. Its main effect, the Afghan officials say, has been to derail Afghan-led efforts to secure peace talks with the Taliban, making that peace ever more remote.

The episode offers a window into the mutual suspicions that still divide Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly because of Pakistan's long history of support for the Taliban, as well as differences between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States about how best to seek reconciliation between insurgents and the Afghan government.

Senior Afghan officials in the military and presidential palace accuse Pakistan of orchestrating the arrest of Baradar and others to take down Taliban leaders most amenable to negotiations. Some of them say that Afghans had been in secret contact with Baradar before his arrest and that he was prepared to join the 1,400 people descending on Kabul next month for a peace conference. Despite Afghan requests, Pakistan has refused to hand over Baradar and other Taliban leaders.

Pakistani officials flatly deny that they intended to derail Taliban talks. Such an allegation, one Pakistani intelligence official said, is a "slur on us."

If the Afghan government "were talking to him, why did they allow him to leave Afghanistan?" he said. "If he was so important [to the peace process], he himself should have stayed there. If he was so important to the jirga, why did the United States provide the information that allowed us to catch him?"

The Afghan government's concern over the timing of the arrests reflects the urgency many feel to initiate a political dialogue with Taliban leadership. This push for high-stakes diplomacy has worried certain segments of Afghan society, including women and minority ethnic groups, who suffered the most under Taliban rule in the 1990s. The Obama administration prefers to focus on enticements for lower-level foot soldiers to switch sides, but President Hamid Karzai says the insurgency cannot be subdued without a political deal with Taliban leaders, according to his aides.

"There is a dire need for all of us, the international community and the Afghan government, to seek ways we can bring them peace," said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, deputy national security adviser in Afghanistan.

Both Afghans and their NATO allies want a negotiated solution to the nine-year-long insurgency, although there are differences of opinion among Afghanistan's Western partners -- and within some Western governments -- on how and how quickly negotiations should proceed.

Senior officials in Washington, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have counseled delaying substantive reconciliation talks until the Taliban has been weakened by the current U.S. military surge, while Britain has said publicly that negotiations should proceed in tandem with the fighting.

In Afghanistan, U.S. military officials appear much more amenable to such talks. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander, has appointed the retired British officer who performed the same task for U.S. forces in Iraq to begin probing for dialogue at all levels.

"One without the other makes absolutely no sense," retired Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb said of the distinction drawn in Washington between reintegration of low-level fighters and reconciliation with top Taliban political leaders.

The pursuit of contacts with the Taliban appears to be happening at many levels within Afghan society, including governors, tribal elders, religious scholars and former Taliban and mujaheddin fighters. In the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, both Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and the region's leading power broker, and Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, his longtime rival, made separate visits to U.S. officials in Kandahar earlier this year to try to convince them they could lead the effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Some Afghans say the arrests of Baradar and others undermined their bargaining position. "He was ready to go to the peace jirga," one senior Afghan official said. After his arrest, "the process of negotiations with the Taliban has slowed. We are now in a suspended state."

Afghan officials attribute to Pakistan multiple motives for the timing of the arrest of Baradar: a desire to not let Afghans control peace talks, to offer up select Taliban leaders to slake American demands for action, and to maintain a degree of influence over the Taliban movement they once openly supported. One American military official in Kabul said Pakistan is using the capture of insurgents as "trade bait" to extract more aid and military assistance from the United States.

Pakistan insists it has no relationship with the Afghan Taliban, although officials acknowledge having intelligence contacts, who they say are similar to those developed by the CIA.

Since Baradar's arrest, he has been interrogated by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials, but the Afghans have been left out. During Karzai's recent visit to Islamabad, he asked Pakistan to turn Baradar and other captured Taliban leaders over to Afghan custody. But Pakistan has said they must go on trial there.

Correspondents Keith Richburg and Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Kabul and Griff Witte in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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