Who in the Taliban Will Replace Baradar?

The Afghan Taliban's worst fears came true Monday, when word leaked that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top-ranking deputy of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been arrested in Pakistan's populous port city of Karachi in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation. Baradar's arrest not only deprives the Taliban of its top operational leader; it could also put in jeopardy Mullah Omar, the so-called Commander of the Faithful and the man who would lead the Taliban if its government were ever restored to power in Afghanistan. If Baradar divulges Mullah Omar's whereabouts under interrogation, he could possibly turn the tide of the nearly nine-year-long war. Most of all, though, the capture signals the Taliban's exposure in Pakistan. Commanders worry about their dependency on, and their vulnerability to, neighboring Pakistan and its military's spy agency, the Directorate General of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Turns out they have cause for alarm.

It has been a complicated relationship. Since the collapse of Mullah Omar's government and the Taliban's flight into Pakistan in late 2001, Pakistan and the ISI, which had helped to bring the hardline Afghan Islamic movement to power in the mid-'90s, have largely given the insurgents a haven along the frontier. From these border strongholds, the Taliban's top leadership strategized, planned attacks, rested, recruited, and reorganized its forces--largely out of harm's way. But they never forgot about their reliance on Pakistan.

"We can fight forever against the U.S. and NATO, but we can't resist Pakistan," says a former Taliban minister who declines to be quoted by name on such a sensitive topic. "We Taliban are like sheep eating in lush grasslands--but who could be sold any time for slaughter by our owners." The ISI, with whom Baradar is said to have had cordial relations, seems to have sold him out under U.S. pressure. And it wasn't the first time: in early 2007, just as Vice President Dick Cheney was due to visit Islamabad, the ISI arrested Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the insurgents' defense minister, in Quetta near the Afghan border. He was as powerful then as Baradar is today.

In interviews, though, Taliban sources wondered why Pakistan decided to move on Baradar now. The insurgent leadership has been hiding more or less in plain sight around the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Karachi, and Peshawar. The ISI likely knows the precise location of each Taliban leader, perhaps with the exception of Mullah Omar, and can pounce on them at any time. A least one key Taliban source speculates that, with Baradar's arrest, Pakistan wants to send a message to the Taliban. "They may be saying, 'You guys think you're strong, but you are still vulnerable and need to pay attention to us,' " says the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Taliban sources do not believe that Mullah Omar will publicly announce a replacement for Baradar any time soon. "Everyone will be waiting to see on whose head the falcon will sit," said one Taliban commander who spoke on condition that he not be named. In the meantime, though, Taliban sources say Baradar's right-hand man, Abdul Qayum Zakir, will probably take over Baradar's duties. Zakir is a tough, battle- and prison-hardened commander from Kandahar province, the insurgency's heartland. He is believed to be in his mid-30s, and was an early commander on the northern front. When the Taliban government collapsed under heavy U.S. bombing in late 2001, he was captured in Mazar-e Sharif by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and handed over to the Americans. He spent some six years in various secret U.S. lockups and at Guantánamo Bay before being turned over to the Afghan government custody sometime in 2006. He is believed to have been released in 2007 for reasons that are unknown. Once freed, he immediately rejoined the Taliban.

Back with the insurgents, Zakir, a member of the small Alizai tribe, quickly rose to take charge of the key provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan. As part of Baradar's drive to make the movement more accountable and transparent, Zakir was charged in 2008 with heading a new body, called the Military Complaints Committee, that worked to evaluate the performances of commanders and to settle disputes among them over turf and finances. Last year Baradar elevated him to head the powerful Defense Committee, which oversees insurgent military actions throughout the country.

Taliban who know Zakir tell NEWSWEEK he has been learning quickly on the job how to be more nuanced, flexible, friendly, and less dictatorial in his relations with other commanders. But it will be tough to follow the footsteps of Baradar, whose avuncular personal touch helped defuse internal tribal disputes as he commanded the larger military program. Many steely Taliban commanders called Baradar "Big Father." He was seen as being less remote, more responsive, and more patient than his boss, Mullah Omar. Zakir, at least at first, is unlikely to command that much respect among both rank-and-file fighters and Taliban commanders.

Zakir will also have to take over Baradar's heavy 18-hour-a-day workload. Handpicked by Mullah Omar to guide the movement while he remained in hiding, Baradar was not only in day-to-day charge of the insurgency; he also presided over the ruling Quetta Shura, the top policymaking body. He hired and fired provincial shadow governors as well as militia commanders. He controlled the insurgency's hefty treasury, which is filled with the proceeds from kidnapping ransoms, tax receipts, protection rackets for the drug trade, and charitable donations from the Gulf nations. "He commands all military, religious, and financial power," says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a Taliban subcommander, who had met Baradar four times before his arrest. 

Zakir also takes over command of a movement that may be stronger than ever (in terms of military and political capabilities) but is also being severely tested by the surge of U.S. troops who are wresting control from the Taliban of important sectors of the Helmand River Valley--former insurgent strongholds where fighters launched operations and profited from the vast fields of poppies. It will be hard for Zakir to preserve fighters' morale and to keep the movement intact; the United States is certainly hoping that Baradar's arrest will cause a crisis of confidence in the guerrillas' ranks, leading to defections of fighters and low-level commanders who may sense the tide is turning against them.

But as Taliban commanders point out to NEWSWEEK, Mullah Omar's movement has survived and even prospered after the losses of other top commanders. "Baradar is replaceable," Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, told NEWSWEEK last summer. "If Baradar is removed, that doesn't mean everything will collapse. Mullah Omar will find a new Baradar who quickly will stand up." Indeed, the Taliban even gathered momentum after the 2007 death of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, who was at the time the insurgency's most effective, ruthless, and feared commander. Nor did the insurgency seem to suffer in 2007 when the ISI arrested Defense Minister Obaidullah Akhund, who was then a coequal with Baradar. Admittedly, though, the Baradar of 2010 is a much bigger, more important fish.

In the end, it's unlikely that Pakistan wants to roll up the Taliban and deliver the entire leadership to the United States. Pakistan is still thought to see the Afghan Taliban as a potential ally in extending Pakistani influence across the border and in curbing India's economic ambitions in Afghanistan. It just may want them to know, in the meantime, who is in charge.