The man likely to be Afghanistan’s next leader entered Kandahar on Tuesday escorted by a fleet of white SUVs, showered by fireworks and greeted by thousands of Afghans, at least a few holding rocket-propelled grenades. For years, the Taliban’s political leaders were ghosts, the invisible strategists of a powerful insurgency, and now here was the convoy carrying Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Some people in the crowd cheered. Many others just stared ahead, transfixed.
Baradar had spent more than half of his adult life as an insurgent or a prisoner, once so certain of his defeat that he prepared a formal surrender after the U.S. invasion following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But he emerged from his convoy — in a flowing, white robe, with wire-rimmed glasses and a long black beard — as the force who had vanquished the United States and its allies.
No one knows exactly how old Baradar is — among the many outstanding questions about him. Right now, perhaps the most pressing: How will someone who split his last decade between a Pakistani prison and a luxury hotel in Doha govern a country where all state structures evaporated in a day?
Baradar was a close friend of Taliban founder Mohammad Omar. Both fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and rose to political power after the Soviet withdrawal. In the late 1990s, Baradar served as the Taliban’s governor of several provinces, among the leaders presiding over a regime that conveyed power through repression and violence.
And yet after the Taliban took over Kabul this week, Baradar issued a video statement, removing his glasses and looking at the camera:
“Now comes the test,” he said. “Now it’s about how we serve and secure our people and ensure their future.”
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and began bombarding both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it was Baradar who was negotiating the Taliban’s surrender with Hamid Karzai, who would soon be installed as the country’s president. Retired Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, then a U.S. Special Forces captain, recalled sitting next to Karzai in Pakistan that November as he spoke with Baradar on a satellite phone.
“It was this polite conversation. There wasn’t really any tension to it,” Amerine recalled. “Listening to the tone of voice, it just sounded like [Karzai] was talking to someone he knew. I didn’t realize he was talking to one of the senior Taliban leaders.”
Within a couple weeks, Baradar would send a force to try to kill Karzai and his men. Yet by early December, under heavy U.S. bombardment, he offered his surrender.
“Karzai was basically working through Baradar to discuss the whole surrender,” Amerine said. “The feeling I had was that the Taliban agreed to surrender Kandahar and the country to Karzai, but they weren’t coming with it. And Karzai understood that. It was, ‘Okay, this is all yours. The fight is over. Stop bombing us.’ And then they began to flee.”
In the early years of the war, as the Taliban began to regroup, Baradar was said to be particularly incensed by a U.S. airstrike that killed dozens of people at a 2002 wedding of his relatives in his home province of Uruzgan, according to a U.N. employee in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“After that, he escaped to Pakistan and started living in Karachi,” the person said.
By 2010, as the Obama administration was sending tens of thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, Baradar had emerged as a day-to-day leader of the Taliban’s war effort. Uruzgan emerged as one of the conflict’s most violent fissures. The fortified U.S., Australian and Dutch military bases there took frequent fire from insurgents.
Meanwhile, Baradar had been developing back-channel discussions with the Karzai government, through the tribal connections he shared with the former president. When he was arrested in February 2010 in a joint operation by CIA and Pakistani forces in Karachi, it was widely seen as an effort by Pakistan to disrupt peace talks.
Baradar spent years in Pakistani prison before his release in 2018 — a period that only added to his political legitimacy, said Thomas Ruttig, a former German diplomat and a longtime analyst of Afghanistan.
“The Taliban are usually described as puppets of Pakistan, which has never been the case: They are very much dependent on them, and Pakistan has influence on them, but the Taliban also are an actor on their own,” Ruttig said. “And I think Baradar’s experience in Pakistani jails will not make him someone who follows Pakistani orders.”
After Baradar was released from prison at the request of U.S. and Afghan leaders, some of his Taliban colleagues wondered about his mental state, given the conditions he had probably endured, said Bette Dam, a Dutch expert on the Taliban.
When he arrived in Qatar last year for negotiations over power-sharing in Afghanistan, he was soft-spoken and less visible than others in the Taliban contingent. His long beard had begun to gray. He wore a flowing shalwar kameez and a turban, a point of contrast with the bikini-clad tourists in the Doha hotel where the negotiators met.
He adopted the language of reconciliation, saying the Taliban was seeking “an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood.”
Even as Taliban attacks continued throughout the negotiating process, U.S. officials became convinced of Baradar’s relevance. In November, he posed for a photo with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, standing in front of gold-rimmed chairs.
Ruttig said Baradar has turned out to be more powerful than some people expected over the years and has “developed and shown political understanding.”
“I would say he’s something like a counterbalance to more hawkish people in the Taliban movement. And it’s good to have someone like that,” he said. “It seems that Baradar will have an enormous influence in the new Taliban government and has been underestimated in his role there.”
But the way Baradar might govern — and even his ability to consolidate power in Kabul — is impossible to predict. Even as he and other Taliban leaders have articulated a more liberal vision of the state in recent days, signs of the Taliban’s repressive techniques have re-emerged.
In some parts of the country, there are reports of girls’ schools being shuttered. Other stories have circulated about the Taliban seizing property and attacking civilians.
Will Baradar try to stop those incidents? If he does, will he be successful?
It’s not even clear where he will live.
In Kabul, the Taliban has taken over the glitzy, multimillion-dollar presidential palace that U.S. funds helped to restore. Baradar, who once emblematized the Taliban’s ascetic-warrior image, will have to decide whether to sleep there, in the former home of the men he spent two decades fighting.
Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul in Mexico City contributed to this report.