As the United States has shifted from trying to defeat the Taliban militarily to seeking a negotiated end to the long Afghan war, American diplomats and Afghan officials alike have grappled with a basic question: Just who speaks on behalf of the Taliban, and with how much authority?
That question seemed to be answered on Thursday when the Taliban announced that one of their founding leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would serve as the new chief negotiator in high-level talks that have reached a critical stage. The appointment brought much-needed clarity and indicated that the Taliban are taking negotiations seriously, according to Western diplomats and Afghan officials.
Mullah Baradar is known as a longtime, powerful lieutenant to the Taliban’s founding supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. The following that Mullah Baradar commands among the Taliban’s rank and file could help make a deal negotiated by him more acceptable, officials said.
Word that a noted Taliban leader would be helping lead the talks was a sign that after an estimated eight years of sporadic negotiations, this round could actually show results. With a war now lasting more than 17 years — America’s longest — the major stakeholders have signaled they are ready for a compromise. The Taliban want the American military to pull out, and the United States is looking for security assurances.
Mullah Baradar’s appointment could also avoid some of the embarrassment of previous efforts at negotiations, like when a shopkeeper posed as the insurgency’s second-in-command, or when a delegation claimed to represent a Taliban leader who had been dead for years.
The announcement of Mullah Baradar as the new chief negotiator came at the end of four days of talks between the Taliban and American diplomats in Doha, the capital of Qatar, the latest of several rounds.
Taliban officials and Western diplomats said Thursday that an agreement was imminent. They said that the two sides were finalizing a deal in which the Taliban would renounce ties to international terrorist groups and pledge that Afghanistan would not be used as a launching ground for attacks on the United States, as Al Qaeda did in 2001. In return, the Americans would declare a timetable for withdrawing their forces.
But on Friday, one person informed of the talks’ developments who spoke on the condition of anonymity suggested that major sticking points still remained, including demands that the Taliban declare a cease-fire and agree to meet with the Afghan government to negotiate their future role.
As talks continued, there were still grim reminders of the deadly violence. Speaking in Davos, Switzerland, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said 45,000 members of the country’s security forces had been killed since he took office in the fall of 2014.
A senior Taliban official, who was not authorized to speak to the news media, said the group’s negotiators had accused the Americans of escalating bombings to pressure the Taliban into a deal. He cited two airstrikes in Helmand Province in recent days that killed 29 people, most of them women and children.
“Mullah Baradar’s appointment is a big change,” said Mohammed Umer Daudzai, the Afghan president’s special envoy on peace. “He is one of the top two leaders. If he is leading the negotiations, he can make decisions more quickly.”
Mr. Daudzai said the previous leadership of the Taliban negotiating team did not have authority to make decisions, and would have had to go back to its leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan, for direction on everything.
“His presence means the process will move faster,” Mr. Daudzai said. “This is good news for the peace process.”
Taliban commanders and fighters welcomed Mullah Baradar’s appointment. One senior Taliban official said his “pragmatism” would help in a process that has many stakeholders.
Abdul Rahman, a Taliban commander in the Darqad district in Takhar Province in the north, said that Mullah Baradar had maintained his authority as one of the group’s top leaders despite spending years away in Pakistani custody.
“His decisions will be acceptable to us, and his past experience means he will handle the process well,” he said.
Believed to be in his early 50s, Mullah Baradar was close to the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, from the 1980s, when the two fought in the same guerrilla group against the Soviet invasion. During the Taliban regime in the 1990s, he took several leadership roles, including as a governor and a senior military commander.
After the American invasion, Mullah Baradar’s name was associated with one of the first attempts at peace. A group of Taliban leaders on the run, including Mullah Baradar, delivered a letter to Hamid Karzai, who had just been appointed Afghanistan’s new leader, essentially seeking safety in return for surrender. The effort was quashed because the United States wanted to defeat the Taliban, not negotiate, news reports said.
As the Taliban regrouped into a powerful insurgency, Mullah Baradar rose to become the movement’s second-in-command and a driving force behind its military success from safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
But Afghan officials said he had established contacts with the Afghan government around 2010 in the hopes of negotiating, and that drew the wrath of the Pakistani military, which was trying to control the Taliban as a proxy. Mullah Baradar was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence agency in what was reportedly a joint raid with Americans.
During the time Mullah Baradar was in Pakistani custody, his health deteriorated, and he was described by an Afghan official who got access to see him as sedated. The question of who in the Taliban to talk to became a daunting one, leading to several bizarre episodes.
In 2010, a shopkeeper from the city of Quetta posed as the movement’s No. 2 leader then, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, and made it as far as meeting with the Afghan president. The impostor was given safe passage to Kabul by the American-led coalition, and was even flown there in an aircraft belonging to one of the coalition countries. He returned with handsome sums for his promise of cooperation.
Later, the Taliban established a negotiating office in Doha. Even though the office arranged the 2014 release of the only known American prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for several senior Taliban prisoners, doubts remained on whether that office had the clout to negotiate the long war’s endgame on behalf of the insurgency.
In 2015, after months of lobbying and pressure on Pakistan to deliver the Taliban for direct talks, Afghan officials met in a Pakistani resort town with a delegation said to be representing the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. Days later, it was revealed that Mullah Omar had been dead for years.
Mullah Baradar’s release from Pakistani custody in October, and his role in peace negotiations, is also seen as a sign of earnest Pakistani cooperation after years of double-dealing, a result of increased economic and diplomatic pressure from the Trump administration.
On one of his first trips as President Trump’s peace envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly asked for Mullah Baradar’s release, and Pakistan obliged. Pakistani security officials said the country’s prime minister and the powerful army chief were both pushing hard to help the United States with the Afghan peace process. Mullah Baradar’s release to pursue a peace deal, after the Pakistani military cracked down on him for the same thing in 2010, was seen as a sign that Pakistan was trying to change its ways.
It is still unclear just how much leverage the Pakistani Army still has over the Taliban, which have diversified their base of support by establishing relations with Iran and Russia. But Pakistani officials insist they mean business.
“Zalmay Khalilzad, on behalf of the U.S. president, asked us to facilitate in bringing Taliban to the negotiations table,” said Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the spokesman for Pakistan’s military. “Pakistan is doing its best to make it happen.”