CAPTURED in Karachi in 2010 and kept in Pakistan despite requests from the Afghan government to hand him over, Mullah Baradar has often been brought up as an example of Pakistan’s real or perceived reluctance to cooperate with Afghanistan and the US in facilitating talks with the Afghan Taliban. Reports appearing yesterday that Afghan government representatives may have met the jailed Taliban commander in Pakistan add a new twist to this narrative. It is always hard to determine exactly what is going on behind the scenes when it comes to Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and the US, particularly in the realm of counterterrorism and Taliban reconciliation, and this report too has been met with denials from Kabul. And Mullah Baradar still remains in Pakistani custody. But if true, these latest reports, along with the travel of Taliban leaders from Pakistan to Qatar earlier this year for talks with the Americans, suggest that Pakistan is perhaps more willing to cooperate than is normally publicly acknowledged by either Afghanistan or the US.
But the news about Baradar also raises some of the same questions that previous instances of contact with the Taliban have: who speaks for the Taliban, and who will the Taliban talk to? For one, the level of Mullah Baradar’s influence over the Taliban at this point is an open question. Ultimately, it is Mullah Omar who calls the shots, and his former deputy has been out of the game for two years now. Second, additional reports indicate that Mullah Baradar did not seem particularly keen to talk to the Afghan government representatives. This is not new; Taliban leaders have said they will not negotiate with the Karzai administration, which they consider a puppet regime controlled by the US. Mullah Baradar’s reported dismissal of his interlocutors would only confirm this.
It is unclear, then, how fruitful this contact was. But this is in line with previous reports about talks with the Taliban, about which little seems clear or encouraging. The Qatar round of talks aimed at building confidence still appears to be stalled. There is noise about a potential Pakistani operation in North Waziristan in response to American pressure, and if that takes place it will likely have its own impact on the Taliban’s willingness to cooperate. And there are real limits to Pakistan’s ability to bring truly influential Taliban leaders to the table. But it is also important for Pakistan to do what it can and send the right signals to the world about its commitment to stabilising the region. If it did arrange talks with Baradar, it moved in the right direction.