Taliban veteran takes centre stage in efforts to form new Afghan government

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The Taliban’s top political leader, who made a triumphal return to Afghanistan this week, battled the US and its allies for decades but then signed a landmark peace agreement with the Trump administration.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is now expected to play a key role in negotiations between the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government that the militant group deposed in its blitz across the country.

The Taliban say they seek an “inclusive, Islamic” government and claim they have become more moderate since they last held power.

Mr 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 US.

His experience also sheds light on the Taliban’s complicated relationship with neighbouring Pakistan.

Mr Baradar is the only surviving Taliban leader to have been personally appointed deputy by the late Taliban commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, giving Mr Baradar near-legendary status within the movement.

And he is more 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.

On Tuesday, Mr Baradar landed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement he helped found in the mid-1990s.

Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Kandahar (Sidiqullah Khan/AP)
Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Kandahar (Sidiqullah Khan/AP)

Mr 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 decade-long 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 robbed travellers to fund their military activities.

In 1994, Mullah Omar, Mr 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.

Mr 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 US-led invasion.

Mullah Mohammed Omar (BBCTV/PA)
Mullah Mohammed Omar (BBCTV/PA)

But Mr Baradar spent most of his time in Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, and did not have an official government role.

The US 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, Mr Omar and other Taliban leaders fled into neighbouring Pakistan.

In the ensuing years, the Taliban were able to organise a potent insurgency based in rugged and semi-autonomous tribal areas along the border.

Mr Baradar was arrested in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi in 2010 in a joint raid by the CIA and Pakistan’s counter-terrorism forces.

At the time, he had been making peace overtures to Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai, but the US was bent on military victory and it appeared that Pakistan wanted to ensure control over any political process.

Mr Baradar’s removal empowered more radical leaders within the Taliban who were less open to diplomacy.

Pakistan and Taliban flags flutter on the respective sides of the border with Afghanistan (Jafar Khan/AP)
Pakistan and Taliban flags flutter on the respective sides of the border with Afghanistan (Jafar Khan/AP)

Mr Baradar himself refused an offer of release in 2013, apparently because the US and Pakistan conditioned it on his cooperation.

Mr Karzai, who is now involved in talks with the Taliban about shaping the next government, could once again find himself negotiating with Mr 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 Mr Baradar that year and began pursuing peace talks with the Taliban.

Mr 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-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

People with the Taliban’s signature white flags (Jafar Khan/AP)
People with the Taliban’s signature white flags (Jafar Khan/AP)

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.

In his first comment after the capture of Kabul on Sunday, Mr Baradar acknowledged his surprise, saying that “it was never expected that we will have victory in Afghanistan.”

Wearing a black turban and vest over a white robe, the bespectacled Mr 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.”

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