Taliban Co-Founder Baradar Greeted By Well-Wishers After Ending 20-Year Afghanistan Exile

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, emerged from a 20-year exile this week, landing Tuesday in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Islamic movement that he co-founded in the mid-1990s.

Baradar was welcomed back by an enthusiastic throng of well-wishers upon arrival in a Qatari government aircraft. Taliban officials said they want an "inclusive, Islamic" government, claiming they have shifted their extreme conservative policies since seizing power in the 1990s.

Baradar spent decades fighting the U.S. and its allies before signing a landmark peace agreement with the Trump administration. Now, he is expected to act as a central figure in negotiations between the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government that the militants ousted in a rapid takeover of the country.

In his first public comment since the capture of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, Baradar said he was surprised by the Taliban's triumph and that "it was never expected that we will have victory in Afghanistan."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Baradar Return from Exile
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, emerged from a 20-year exile this week, landing Tuesday in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Islamic movement that he co-founded in the mid-1990s. Above, Baradar arrives with other members of the Taliban delegation for an international peace conference in Moscow, Russia, on March 18, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File/AP Photo

But many remain skeptical, and all eyes are now on Baradar, who has said little about how the group will govern but has proven pragmatic in the past.

Baradar's biography charts the arc of the Taliban's journey from an Islamic militia that battled warlords during the civil war in the 1990s, ruled the country in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islamic law and then waged a two-decade insurgency against the U.S. His experience also sheds light on the Taliban's complicated relationship with neighboring Pakistan.

Baradar is the only surviving Taliban leader to have been personally appointed deputy by the late Taliban commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, giving Baradar near-legendary status within the movement. And he is far more visible than the Taliban's current supreme leader, Maulawi Hibatullah Akhunzada, who is believed to be in hiding in Pakistan and only releases occasional statements.

Baradar, who is in his early 50s, was born in the southern Uruzgan province. Like others who would eventually become Taliban leaders, he joined the ranks of the CIA- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen to fight against the Soviet Union during its decadelong occupation of the country that ended in 1989.

In the 1990s, the country slid into civil war, with rival mujahideen battling one another and carving out fiefdoms. Warlords set up brutal protection rackets and checkpoints in which their forces shook down travelers to fund their military activities.

In 1994, Mullah Omar, Baradar and others founded the Taliban, which means religious students. The group mainly consisted of clerics and young, pious men, many of whom had been driven from their homes and had known only war. Their unsparing interpretation of Islam unified their ranks and set them apart from the notoriously corrupt warlords.

Baradar fought alongside Mullah Omar as he led the Taliban through its seizure of power in 1996 and its return to an insurgency following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

During the group's 1996-2001 rule, the president and governing council were based in Kabul. But Baradar spent most of his time in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, and did not have an official government role.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which had been planned and carried out by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida while it was sheltering under Taliban rule. Baradar, Omar and other Taliban leaders fled into neighboring Pakistan.

In the ensuing years, the Taliban was able to organize a potent insurgency based in rugged and semi-autonomous tribal areas along the border. Baradar was arrested in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi in 2010 in a joint raid by the CIA and Pakistan's counterterrorism forces.

At the time, he had been making peace overtures to Afghanistan's then-President Hamid Karzai, but the U.S. was bent on military victory and it appeared that Pakistan wanted to ensure control over any political process. Baradar's removal empowered more radical leaders within the Taliban who were less open to diplomacy.

Karzai later confirmed the overtures to AP and said he had twice asked the Americans and the Pakistanis to free Baradar but was rebuffed. Baradar refused an offer of release in 2013, apparently because the U.S. and Pakistan conditioned it on his cooperation.

Karzai, who is now involved in talks with the Taliban about shaping the next government, could once again find himself negotiating with Baradar.

By 2018, the Taliban had seized effective control over much of Afghanistan's countryside. The Trump administration, looking for a way out of America's longest war, persuaded Pakistan to release Baradar that year and began pursuing peace talks with the Taliban.

Baradar led the Taliban's negotiating team in Qatar through several rounds of those talks, culminating in a February 2020 peace agreement. He also met with then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Under the deal, the Taliban agreed to halt attacks on international forces and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terror groups in return for a full U.S. withdrawal, now planned for the end of the month.

Last week, the Taliban pushed into the country's cities, seizing nearly all of the country in matter of days and then rolled virtually unopposed into the capital, Kabul.

Wearing a black turban and vest over a white robe, the bespectacled Baradar looked straight into the camera.

"Now comes the test," he said. "We must meet the challenge of serving and securing our nation, and giving it a stable life going forward."

Taliban Press Conference
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid gestures as he speaks during the first press conference in Kabul on August 17, 2021, following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP/Getty Images