Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Baradar's Game

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Could Mullah Baradar arrange a truce in Afghanistan?

2) What will get Iran to change course?

Could Mullah Baradar arrange a truce in Afghanistan?

On Feb. 15, the New York Times revealed that Pakistani and United States intelligence officers captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's second in command. According to the Times, the capture occurred in Karachi several days before the publication of its article. Both Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers were interrogating the Taliban leader.

What was Baradar doing in Karachi? The United States and Pakistan have greatly expanded the employment of drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. The countryside might now be so dangerous that Taliban leaders such as Baradar might now be forced to take their chances in cities, away from the drones' hunting grounds. But avoiding detection in the cities is even more challenging. If the drones are eliminating the countryside as a safe haven, the survival options for Taliban leaders may now be running out.

Could Baradar's capture have actually been a defection? Seeing his life expectancy running short, he might have opted for the safety of capture. Another twist on this scenario is the possibility of a rift inside the Afghan Taliban's leadership; Baradar may have defected to avoid assassination at the hands of his comrades.

Much of the commentary on Baradar's capture has focused on the role of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI has been the Afghan Taliban's sponsor and protector in the past. Yet now the ISI is publicly involved in Baradar's capture (or defection). Does Baradar possess some long-term value to the Pakistani government?

A follow-up story in the New York Times revealed that prior to his capture, Afghan and U.S. officials had indirect contact with Baradar and had negotiated with him, presumably about reconciliation. According to the piece, the Pakistani government was not a party to these talks.

In the long run, U.S. and Pakistani interests regarding Afghanistan diverge. Pakistan maintains a permanent interest in the greater Pashtun region, and a weak Afghan government in Kabul is to their advantage. The United States seeks a strong government in Kabul. Even more important to Pakistan: In the long run the United States will inevitably tilt toward India.

But in the shorter run, there may be some convergance. Similar to the forthcoming U.S. exit from Iraq, the Obama team is hoping for a political settlement in Afghanistan that leads to a relative calm, at least long enough to allow most of the U.S. military forces in the country to gracefully exit. For its part, Pakistan might also prefer a truce. Pakistani leaders may worry that an escalating ground war in Afghanistan and a drone campaign on Pakistan's frontier could eventually obliterate the Afghan Taliban's command structure, crippling Pakistan's influence inside Afghanistan. By this reasoning, both the United States and Pakistan would have an interest in a truce occurring sometime soon.

Might Baradar be the man in the best position to bring about such a truce? If he was able to convince most of his comrades to cease fire, Pakistan is in a position to reward him. U.S. officials would hardly frown on such a settlement, as long as it lasted long enough for Washington's purposes. The biggest loser might be Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But few in the White House seem concerned for his feelings these days.

What will get Iran to change course?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Saudi Arabia on Feb. 15 to talk Iran with Saudi leaders. Her message to the public in the region was that Iran was turning into a "military dictatorship." Clinton asserted that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was assuming ever greater control over Iran's economy, military, and politics.

Clinton is hoping that her message -- which she stated to reporters on three separate occasions - will induce Arab states around the Persian Gulf to rally against Iran. U.S. officials have long sought greater defense cooperation among the Arab states. These officials have dreamed of a strong Arab defense alliance balancing Iranian power and thus providing a stable end-state for the region.

Alas, suspicions among the Arab states run almost as deep as suspicions about Iran's intentions. And if Clinton was calling for greater Arab energy, cooperation, and self-help regarding Iran, she muddled her message with this reasoning:

Iran's neighbors, she said, have three options. "They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is —to help defend them," she said. "I think the third is by far the preferable option."

If Clinton's preference is for the United States to be the principal military defender of the Arab states, those states won't have much incentive to either get energized about the problem or overcome their suspicions and cooperate with each other.

On Feb. 8, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met in Paris with French leaders to discuss the Iran problem. At the press conference, Gates concluded, "[W]e have to face the reality that if Iran continues and develops nuclear weapons, it almost certainly will provoke nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This is a huge danger. The key is persuading the Iranian leaders that their long-term best interests are best served by not having nuclear weapons, as opposed to having them."

Gates seems to be saying that the threat of a regional arms race aimed at Iran might do a better job of changing minds in Tehran than any measures taken thus far. Iran's leaders discount this possibility because they know that nonproliferation is a very important U.S. policy goal. Clinton's analysis of the available options quoted above also seems to discard an arms race as a policy alternative.

But what if, by Gates's logic, it is the only policy that might change Iranian behavior? Credibly threatening Iran with an arms race might be the only way to avert such a race; nothing else tried so far has worked.


John (not verified)

Thu, 03/25/2010 - 9:31pm

The "Anonymous" talking about Baradar is absolutely right.

I don't agree that Baradar or any one Taliban commander can or will ever agree to real negotiations. At least not with the compromises that we see as essential and they see as inviolable. (Unless we just abandon Afghanistan, Saigon style of course).

BUT The Pakistanis arrest the one sole potentially dissenting voice at exactly the same time as reports of talks emerge? That too, a member of the Quetta Shura who are apparently no one knows anything about?

We got punked hard and the message was simple. Anything, absolutely anything, you want to do in Afghanistan requires Pakistan.

Only problem is that they don't believe we can win so they are playing for stalemate. After we leave, since they never really touched the Afghan Taliban, they help them overthrow Karzai and bam, welcome to pre-9/11 Afghanistan. I bet within 5 years if we withdraw on the Obama schedule.

Good thing for Obama, the American public does not really worry about things or places 5 years in the past.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 02/27/2010 - 9:32am

Pakistan announced that they will NOT extradite Berader to Afghanistan. Essentially Pakistan (& CIA) just took one of the best reconciliation possibilities out of the mix. Good work. I am sure this looks like a win for the 90 or 120 day warriors who do this type of work. Where is the vision?

Anonymous has a naive view of the world. We may as well say, "oh, don't worry about Iran going nuclear. They just want to be heard." Why don't we send therapists to the Mullahs. Maybe they will feel better about themselves then. More seriously, after General Abizaid asked the question why a nuclear Iran is something we can't live with, I suspected that I saw in seed form the next excuse for doing nothing about Iran, taken up by folks who illogically attempted to prevent them from going nuclear to begin with. Try as best you can to prevent it from happening, then make excuses after it happened to show that it was okay all along.

Don't get me wrong. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration took or has taken the Iran threat seriously. They have been at war with us for twenty five years, and we may yet lose Iraq because of Iran. The State Department under Bush was allowed to jettison the only remaining democracy program we had for Iran in favor of attempting to "negotiate" with the Mullahs.

tequila, you're still thinking in a Western and secular motif. You're thinking like, for instance, the students in Iran think. Shame and pity we have not supported them - for we may not be in the predicament we are in with Iran.

Iran must be around in order to usher in the eschaton. The deal with Iraq was expedient, but had nothing to do with the desire to assure that his people were safe and protected. It had to do with looking forward to what he had to accomplish - the twelfth Imam. When you try to understand Iran's rulers, don't think about your loved ones, your countrymen, rationality, and interpersonal relationships. Think eschaton. That is what the religious rulers in Iran think about.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 3:50pm

If Vegas were laying odds on who in the Quetta Shura Taliban that the ISI would finally arrest, it probably wouldn't have even been worth a wager because it was so obviously going to be Berader.

Is it coincidence that Pakistan finally decides to bag one of the Quetta Shura Taliban residing in their country and he is the only Zirak sub-confederation Durrani on the council (and a fellow Karzai)? Any coincidence that this happens shortly after Karzai puts out an ambitious reconciliation plan? Do we really think Berader will be able to reconcile the Taliban in his current status?

Call me a contrarian, I think this takes away one of only a few potential winning hands in Afghanistan. It will likely be a short term boon for HVI targeteers but will not bring us any closer to ending the insurgency. Like pointed out above, Pakistan's interests do not align with a strong Pashtun led Afghanistan. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put these pieces together given Pakistan & Afghanistan histories. Hopefully our policy makers are not being duped by Pakistan, yet again.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 12:50pm

Herschel Smith - Choice of nuclear delivery platforms aside. Tehran is very concerned with Iran as a nation state, so much so, those now in charge, like the Shah before them, quest for the role as power broker in the Middle East region.

Having joined the nuclear weapons club, which they surely will, they know then, when they talk, they will be listened to much more intently.

Iran's proxy, Hezbollah poses more of a threat to Israel than any nuclear weapons does. Tehran knows that Isreal is no threat to its existance - only a threat to its sphere of influence in the region they seek - these two countries feed off each other.

tequila (not verified)

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 7:43am

If the Ayatollah Khomeini did not care about the fate of Iran as a nation-state, why did he sign a ceasefire agreement with Iraq in 1988 after swearing repeatedly never to do so in religious and apocalyptic terms?

Good heavens. Where to begin. First of all, the administration has no such plan. They are dumbfounded and don't know what to do about Iran.

Second, you are thinking about things within the framework of a secular, Western paradigm. You must jettison that framework. To understand Iran's intentions one needs to think the way the religious rulers do - eschatologically. It was Khomeini who said that it didn't matter if all of Iran burned, because there isn't Iran. Nation-states don't (or shouldn't) exist in their world view. Those who followed on behind Khomeini are just as extreme (or more so).

Third, because of the reasons above, assured destruction means nothing to the Mullahs. There is something greater to which they aspire, and Iran is but a pawn in the plans.

Fourth, those who are waiting on a missile as the delivery technology (and believe that Iran is too) are misguided. After achieving a nuclear weapon, no one would be so stupid as to trust it to a missile that had anything less than a perfect chance of success. Their technology isn't that reliable yet. A truck and a terrorist are better, driving right into the heart of Haifa or Tel Aviv.

Fifth, this achieves more than certainty in delivery. It means that Iran doesn't have to wait on perfect firing mechanisms, hydrogen bombs (fusion that relies on the heat from fission), and all of the other aspects of miniaturized nuclear weapons (something China hasn't even achieved yet compared to the U.S. thanks to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Labs). They can achieve a large, crude nuclear weapons that isn't yet small enough to be delivered via a missile, and still do untold damage to a population. Again, a truck and a man achieve what a missile cannot. Don't think air delivery. They won't wait on that.

Sixth, no country in the Middle East will run to the U.S. for protection. The leaders wouldn't be so stupid as to rely on a U.S. which wouldn't prevent Iran from going nuclear to ensure that she didn't use it. And the population wouldn't allow rulers to do that. A nuclear arms race will ensue, with Egypt leading the way behind Iran. I hope everyone likes the sound of this, because if Iran goes nuclear, that is what will most certainly happen.

Finally, we all know now what most thinking men suspected months and even years ago. As the IAEA admitted, Iran has achieved 20 weight percent enrichment. Take note. Naval reactor designs use 90%+ enriched fuel, but let's leave this out of the discussion for a moment. KAPL does core designs for the U.S. Navy and Iran doesn't know how to manage such a small, high powered reactor. They have no KAPL, and Pakistani technology cannot replace our knowledge. There is no commercial reactor design in any country anywhere that can take 20% enriched fuel. The designs won't support that fuel. Because of its overall highly positive power coefficient and high reactivity of the fuel, the core itself would be unmanageable and prone to accidents. No operator could control it. The point is that 20% enriched Uranium has one purpose - to prove that you can do it and continue on to 90% where you can weaponize it. Period. End of discussion.

Pleasant dreams.

Stephen L. Castner (not verified)

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 12:44am

Clinton's statement is transparent. The Obama administration is intending that a nuclear Iran will drive the Arab nations of the region to the United States for defense. That will enable the United States to break the AOPEC oil monopoly. Iran will not use nuclear weapons because that would assure its destruction. The risk that the Obama administration may not have calculated is that, although Iran would be hard pressed to build a missile to deliver a nuclear payload to the United States, other means of delivery do exist.