Feared Taliban former No 2 may now hold key to Afghan peace

Feared Taliban former No 2 may now hold key to Afghan peace
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (right) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Islamabad.

KABUL/ISLAMABAD - Once a ruthless fighter and a friend of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Abdul Ghani Baradar may now hold the key to Afghanistan's peace - or so his minders believe.

The former Taliban second-in-command was captured in Pakistan in 2010 and has since emerged as a figure Afghanistan and Pakistan believe could help persuade his former comrades to lay down their weapons and engage in peace talks.

Pakistan announced this week that it would free Baradar as early as this month. Sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan said he could be sent to another country, possibly Saudi Arabia or Turkey, to prepare him for the mission.

Even before his detention, Baradar was known as a pragmatic and level-headed operator who had once reached out to Kabul seeking a peace settlement, according to Afghan officials.

But critics say his years in Pakistani detention may have eroded his sway over the fast evolving insurgency, and there are doubts over whether Mullah Omar would agree to talk to his former protégé in the first place.

"He won't be able to mediate because he has lost his influence during his time in prison," said Ahmad Zia Massoud, a former vice president whose brother, guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, was killed by al Qaeda militants two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Unless there is a comprehensive plan to negotiate peace with Mullah Omar, one person won't be able to do anything."

Afghanistan sees Baradar as a sensible and down-to-earth negotiator willing to act as a go-between for the Kabul government and the Taliban leadership council, the Quetta Shura.

One of the founders of the Taliban movement, Baradar is ethnic Pashtun and belongs to the same powerful Popalzai subtribe as Karzai - a factor that could lend credibility to Karzai's own peace efforts among Pashtuns, Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group.

Baradar, who is in his 40s, also belongs to the older generation of mujahedeen fighters who are less ideologically extreme compared with a younger, more violent crop of insurgents with closer links to al Qaeda.

Baradar's friendship with Mullah Omar goes back to the 1980s when the two fought side by side against the Soviets - a decade-long war during which Mullah Omar famously lost his eye.

It was Mullah Omar who gave Baradar his nom de guerre, which means "brother". Later they married a pair of sisters, analysts say. Some Afghan politicians said he still enjoyed much support among his former comrades in arms.

"He is a highly influential figure among Pashtuns in the south who is capable of helping us with the peace process," said Shahzada Shahid, a senior member of Afghan High Peace Council.

"Many Taliban commanders fought under him," Shahid said, adding that he should be able to encourage many fighters to stop fighting.

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