The capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar in a combined Pakistani-American intelligence operation in Karachi is a major development in the war on terror. This is true not only, and obviously, with reference to the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps more profoundly, it is also true with reference to the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. It could be a critical step forward in a long-troubled partnership, one fueled by converging perceptions of the threat of Islamic extremism. But, if part of a deal to grant Pakistan a free hand in Afghanistan once American forces withdraw in return for greater near-term cooperation to support the West's rush to exit the region, it could presage a troubling step backward.
The CIA worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in combined intelligence operations targeting Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001 -- following a famous U.S. ultimatum to Pakistan to assist in the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan or share its fate, and reinforced by al Qaeda's repeated assassination attempts against General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler at the time. But ISI has continued to enjoy intimate relations with the Afghan Taliban, which it helped create and bring to power in 1996. More recently, Pakistani intelligence officers have helped Afghan Taliban commanders outwit their American adversaries, even as ISI benefited from American material support. Indeed, Mullah Baradar was previously captured by Afghan forces in November 2001 -- then released after ISI intervention, according to the New York Times.
What has changed the Pakistani military leadership's calculus to the point that ISI has now helped capture the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader? The optimist's answer is, in a word, the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan sponsored the Taliban when it was a vehicle for Pakistani influence in Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland. But the spillover from the Taliban's resurgence next door helped create a monster in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, whose suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks increasingly have targeted the institutions of the Pakistani state and its supreme defender: the Pakistani armed forces.
In this reading, the encouragement provided to the Pakistani Taliban by the successes of the Afghan Taliban has changed Pakistani military leaders' calculations about the strategic advantage they gain from their Afghan alliance. The Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan has emboldened a Pakistani Taliban that wants to weaken and overthrow the Pakistani state and the privileged position of the Pakistani armed forces within it. This logic, and intensified American pressure on Pakistan's military high command, has led it to cooperate with the Americans against the Afghan Taliban leadership in a hitherto unprecedented way.
Nothing is ever as it seems on the surface in Pakistan, however. This leads to a darker interpretation of the joint operation to capture Mullah Baradar and its implications for Pakistani-American cooperation in Afghanistan going forward. President Obama's plan for premature troop withdrawals from Afghanistan starting next summer may make it impossible for American, Afghan, and NATO forces in the near term to weaken the Taliban sufficiently to stabilize Afghanistan. President Karzai himself has said Afghan forces will not be able to secure the country for 10-15 years without foreign military and financial support.
What if Washington has cut a quiet deal with Pakistan's military high command, granting them a disproportionate role in determining Afghanistan's future in return for help facilitating the withdrawal of Western forces? In return for Pakistani cooperation over the next 18 months -- including Pakistani military offensives against violent extremists in its tribal regions, joint intelligence operations like the one that netted Mullah Baradar, delivering elements of the Afghan Taliban for serious talks on reconciliation with the Afghan government, and continued Western use of Pakistani territory to supply Western forces fighting in Afghanistan -- one could imagine a private U.S. understanding with Pakistani armed forces commander General Kayani that, once Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan can enjoy a free hand to resume its special relationship with the country's post-Karzai leadership in its continued quest for strategic depth against India.
Or there could be no nefarious deal between Washington and Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan's military-intelligence complex. Perhaps this was a unilateral CIA operation labeled a "joint intelligence operation" to protect Pakistani sensitivities over its sovereignty, an explanation consistent with President Obama's aggressive use of CIA drone strikes against Pakistani extremists. Or maybe Rawalpindi wanted to either encourage or scupper reconciliation talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Karzai government with an eye on Pakistan's ultimate interests in post-American Afghanistan, and thereby sacrificed Mullah Baradar to one or the other cause. Indian analysts Nitin Pai and Dhruva Jaishankar creatively flesh out these and other possibilities here.
Whatever the explanation, let us hope that Pakistan's important capture of the Taliban's operational commander genuinely reflects a change of heart vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban -- rather than the latest twist in the ISI's fabled history of playing both sides in regional conflicts, all the while prospering from American largesse.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.