The new face of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers owes his freedom to the U.S.
In 2001, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, tried to arrange the group’s surrender to the new U.S.-backed Afghan government. It was rejected. He spent most of the past decade under arrest in Pakistan.
He returns to power 20 years later after the U.S. lobbied for his release when the Trump administration launched talks with the Taliban. At the helm of the group’s political office in Doha, its de facto embassy, Mullah Baradar led talks with the U.S. that culminated in a deal to end America’s engagement in the 20-year war.
The world still has little idea who Afghanistan’s new leaders are and how they will rule the country. If the movement has a face, today it is Mullah Baradar. He is the highest-ranking leader of the movement to appear in public since it took back control of Afghanistan.
In his first appearance on Sunday, the somber, spectacled political leader spoke in low tones and urged for calm, promised services to the nation, and called on fighters to be respectful.
“The way we achieved this was unexpected. God gave us this victory,” Mullah Baradar said in a video message released on social media, telling the Taliban’s rank-and-file to “not be arrogant.”
The Taliban haven’t said who will lead their movement, or how their government will operate.
For two decades, the Taliban built up a war administration with appointed leaders for each province, judiciary, and military commanders, but rarely appeared in public.
The group’s Emir, or spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada is believed to be based near Quetta in Pakistan. The day-to-day operations are led by his two deputies: Mullah Yacub—the eldest son of the group’s first leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar—and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group’s military chief.
“The structure we see now is not necessarily the structure we’ll see when they come into government,” said Ashley Jackson, an expert on insurgencies and author of a book about life under Taliban rule. “Nobody knows who is going to run the movement…Nobody knows, and I would wager the Taliban don’t know because they haven’t said anything yet.”
Mullah Baradar, now aged around 50, has been a central figure in the Taliban movement ever since it emerged.
His friendship with the Taliban’s founder and late leader, Mullah Omar, went back decades. Bette Dam, a Taliban expert and author of a book on Mullah Omar, says the two met in southern Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement,hard-won when they took up arms against the Soviets following the invasion of 1979.
Mullah Baradar proved himself a skilled military commander during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1994. When the group was forced underground after the U.S. invasion of 2001, he first tried to surrender and then played a central role in regrouping it and turning it into an insurgency.
“He was the one who surrendered to Hamid Karzai in December 2001,” Ms. Dam said, referring to Afghanistan’s first president after the Taliban fell from power.
Mullah Baradar was long regarded as the senior Taliban commander most likely to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government and its Western backers.
He tried again to negotiate a settlement midway into the conflict, engaging in secret contacts with Mr. Karzai’s government before he was captured by U.S. and Pakistani agents in early 2010.
“He is one of the most important people in the Taliban because he has been around since day one and has been a driving force in the key stages of the movement,” says Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant on Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group.
For years after his arrest, Mr. Karzai—who belongs to the same influential branch of the Pashtun Durrani tribe as Mullah Baradar—pressed Pakistan to free the Taliban leader in the hopes that his release could help jump-start peace talks with the insurgent group.
It was only in 2018, in response to U.S. pressure, that Mullah Baradar was finally released by Pakistan. Early doubts over his authority, and his health after years under arrest, lifted quickly.
To the Americans, he brought a change in the tone of the negotiations. Where discussions had previously been heated over civilian casualties, with each side accusing the other of brutalities, Mullah Baradar was rarely seen to raise his voice.
Negotiators describe him as quiet, contained, and difficult to read. But when working-level talks with the Americans reached a deadlock, Mullah Baradar could be depended on to step in and facilitate a breakthrough. He was inclusive, frequently stepping aside to allow others in the delegation to speak.
“He is not one of those guys who commands the room through his words,” said a person familiar with the talks.
But others were frustrated by how tightly communication was controlled. In a recent meeting with a European delegation, he read out a statement in Pashto, which was translated, leaving little room for dialogue.
“There was very little genuine dialogue based on which I could form an opinion about his personality,” one European diplomat said.
In the days leading to Kabul’s collapse, Mullah Baradar was the face of the organization that promised American diplomats that the Taliban wouldn’t enter Kabul until the evacuation of the embassy was complete. But after the government fled without warning, the Taliban rolled into the city.
The group claimed it was to avoid chaos. International officials can only guess who is really in control.
The Taliban is now entering its most precarious period. Kabul is in chaos, reports of beatings and killings are spreading terror among residents, and international observers fear that opportunistic groups may use the vacuum to loot and kill.
“They took the country pretty easily, but so did we after Sept. 11,” the person familiar with the talks said. “The idea of a protracted civil war is still possible.”
Western officials say they hope the Taliban will respect international conventions on human rights and preserve some of the hard-won freedoms for women achieved during decades of U.S. influence. In return, Western diplomats are offering international legitimacy, and potentially even assistance.
As recently as two months ago, Mullah Baradar declared an interest in engaging with international partners and a continued international presence in Kabul, according to diplomats.
“We’ll see. We’ve talked about that with them before,” an EU diplomat said of the Taliban. “We’ll try to keep in touch with them to talk about these things over the next couple of days.”