Baradar's Taliban Successors

By all accounts, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be virtually impossible to replace. Until his recent capture in Karachi by U.S. and Pakistani forces, the Taliban's master strategist was working 18-hour days. Battle-hardened commanders fondly called him Big Father, and it was the Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar himself, who nicknamed him Baradar—"brother" in the Pashto tongue—when they were teenagers fighting the Soviets side by side.

But if three decades of war have taught Afghans anything, it's how to improvise. Taliban commanders and intelligence operatives tell NEWSWEEK that, for now, Baradar's role is likely to be filled by a collective leadership of at least three top associates: Military Committee chief Abdul Qayum Zakir, central Afghanistan regional commander Mullah Mohammad Nasir, and Baradar's deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. Each has different but complementary skills.

Short and corpulent, Mansoor cuts a deceptively comical figure: behind the affable exterior, he is a fiery jihadist. He joined the Taliban in 1995 and quickly won Mullah Omar's favor through his personal charm and his talents as an organizer and fighter. In 2001 he fled to Pakistan, where he recruited and equipped fighters to return to Afghanistan. Like Baradar, he's said to be patient, tolerant, and understanding in his dealings with tribal elders.
Zakir could hardly be more different. He spent a long stretch in secret U.S. lockups and at Guantánamo Bay before being handed to the Afghan government—which freed him for undisclosed reasons in 2007. His rapid rise since then would seem to make him a logical choice as Baradar's sole successor. But some senior com-manders and intelligence operatives describe him as ruthless, hotheaded, and emotionally unstable, despite his evident military skills.

Nasir is a one-armed jihadist who led the Military Committee until Zakir took his place last year. As top commander of the central military zone around Kabul, he takes pride in implementing his own version of America's counterinsurgency strategy. "The insurgency is moving from a military to a social movement," he tells NEWSWEEK. "We are solving the people's problems, providing them with security and easy and fast justice."
The new lineup means new problems for the Kabul government. For one thing, chances for peace talks are tougher than ever with Baradar out of play; no one in a leadership of equals is likely to stick out his neck. And for another, the Taliban can hedge its bets now. "It's best that we don't have one big man in charge if he gets arrested or martyred," says a commander in Helmand province.