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Interview: Taliban Chronicler Fergusson On Mullah Baradar's Release And Afghan Peace

Pakistani police securing the area around a security checkpoint in Karachi in February 2010, when, under still unclear circumstances, senior Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured.
Pakistani police securing the area around a security checkpoint in Karachi in February 2010, when, under still unclear circumstances, senior Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured.
James Fergusson is a journalist and author who has covered events around the world but particularly in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

His first book, "Kandahar Cockney: A Tale of Two Worlds," tells the story of Mir, his Afghan fixer/interpreter, whom he helped gain political asylum in London. He is also author of the books "Taliban: The True Story of the World’s Most Feared Guerrilla Fighters," and "A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan." His latest book, "The World's Most Dangerous Place," deals with Somalia and its diaspora, and the security threat that the newest battle front against Al-Qaeda poses to the West.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar talked with him after the release on September 21 of the Taliban's former second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

RFE/RL: The Taliban's second- in-command was set free by Pakistan today. How important is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for the Taliban, especially for its leadership now?

James Fergusson: It’s very hard to tell, because he's been locked up for nearly three years now. Things have moved on a great deal. But it is certain that Pakistan, by releasing Mullah Baradar, is hoping that he still does have some influence. This looks very much to me like Pakistan’s play to try and make sure that they have a hand in the negotiations.

RELEASE FOR PEACE? Pakistan Frees Top Taliban Prisoner In Peace-Talks Bid

RFE/RL: Is Mullah Baradar in a position to persuade Taliban insurgents who are currently fighting against Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan to put down their weapons and join the peace process?

Fergusson: I think he may be. He was a very respected leader in his time and he has a track record of encouraging negotiations in the past. But the problem he has is that the circumstances of his arrest in 2010 and exactly what went on in that time is so murky and no one knows quite what happened. There were stories that he’d been turned or tortured back in 2010. So no one quite knows now exactly where he stands. It may not be his fault, but because he's been in Pakistani custody for so long, he may not have the influence over the Taliban rank-and-file that he once did.

RFE/RL: As you are aware Baradar was detained in 2010 in Karachi, Pakistan, the main question is that why Pakistan would arrest him in the first place?

Fergusson: It’s another good question. You have to go back to the 1990s and remember the context in which the Taliban arose. I’m in no doubt and most people now are in no doubt at all that Pakistan -- the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency] were completely instrumental in the creation of the Taliban in the first place. And so they've always tried to control it but have not always succeeded very well.

There is a very good expression from that part of the world that when the ISI created the Taliban they created a tiger -- the question is whether they have the tiger by the head or by the tail. And that still applies, I think. They want to keep control of this tiger, but they haven’t always managed to do so. So, by putting him in jail, it’s like storing a valuable playing card for the future. The question is what value is that card now. No one quite knows, I suspect that not even Pakistan knows.

So why would they arrest him -- it's a good point. They offered, on the face of it, to release him to Afghanistan to the Karzai government. And that shows, I think, that Pakistan are very keen to keep hold of this potentially valuable negotiating tool or partner for the future.

RFE/RL: In the past Afghan officials said that Pakistan was trying to control or sabotage the peace process in Afghanistan, what do you think now? Has Pakistan changed its stance toward Afghanistan?

Fergusson: I very much doubt it because of the history of the Taliban and this region. Any negotiated settlement -- I think -- it was a great mistake of the Bonn peace process back in 2001 was that the regional partners were not really consulted or included in the peace talks in the settlement that saw the establishment of the [Hamid] Karzai government in the first place.

And we are coming up now for another major settlement, when NATO finally leaves. The mistake that we made last time must not be repeated. We must include the regional partners, and of course you must include Pakistan. Pakistan does need to have a say in what happens after NATO leaves. If the West tries to exclude Pakistan, they will find ways to make sure that they are still influential, because they have such a huge stake in all of this. They created the Taliban in order to create strategic depth. It’s not a secret, it’s well known, all of this.

The reason that it's there is to do with India -- the many decades-long paranoia, many people would say, about India. How do you counter a much more powerful enemy to the south? The answer is you create a friendly regime to your west in Afghanistan -- it's somewhere that you can retreat to. So they are not going to give up easily. Pakistan has to be part of the solution when it comes.

RFE/RL: You know that Afghanistan is getting prepared for its upcoming presidential election. Do you think Baradar's release would persuade the Taliban to participate in the coming political process?

Fergusson: What really matters in all this is what Mullah Omar thinks. He remains the supreme leader, the figurehead of the Taliban. Unless, he decides to go for the elections wholeheartedly, then I think nothing is going to happen.

RFE/RL: Can Mullah Baradar influence Mullah Mohammad Omar directly?

Fergusson: Well, it’s possible because they go back a long way, they are personal friends, they may even be related by marriage. He will have some influence. But he has been out of the game for three years; the war has been going on for all of that time without him. He’s been replaced as the military leader within the Taliban, so his influence must be less than it was before 2010 when he was first arrested.

RFE/RL: What do you think about post-2014 Afghanistan? What fate will the country meet as the international forces are pulling out of the country?

Fergusson: Well, NATO leadership keeps saying that the Afghan National army is going to hold the line and that they are going to be still there and standing when NATO is gone. Myself, I am afraid, I am rather more cynical at that. I suspect they will not last terribly long.

The casualty figures coming from Helmand that the ANA is suffering at the moment are dreadful. I saw that ANA had lost in one month more soldiers than the British lost in four years down there. And that kind of casualties can make it quite hard for any army to sustain.

And when you look back at what happened to the Afghan National army or its equivalent after the Soviets left, they lasted a year or two but eventually just kind of collapsed. And I am afraid that as the money runs out the financing and actually the air support for the ANA, the ANA may well go the same way as its counterpart did after the Soviet invasion....

My view on this is that Taliban are going to be part of this government. I don’t really think they are going to take over. What I’d like to see is some kind of pluralism. The Taliban is not a modernistic organization. There are hard-liners within it who would like to take over the country for themselves, but there are others who are more moderate, more practical, who see that there is a necessity now to share power, particularly with the non-Pashtuns, the Hazaras, and in the north, because they have to.

It didn’t work last time. But if they don’t take part in the elections, then it’s looking more likely that they are going to try it through force, and that would be a great tragedy for Afghanistan.

The dialogue track between the West and the Taliban and of any kind is very much stalled. It’s desperately important that that gets back on track, and maybe just maybe this release of Mullah Baradar is part of that. You've got to get more dialogue going now because the clock is ticking and we’re leaving in a year's time -- as you say, there are elections, so the stakes couldn't really be higher for Afghanistan.

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