Abdul Ghani Barader, Taliban co-founder
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s de facto leader Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

No one could have predicted the speed of events unfolding in Afghanistan now even if they had concluded that the withdrawal of the last US troops would inevitably result in the return of the Taliban and the collapse of the fragile Western-backed government.

After two decades trying to destroy the Taliban, Western powers now face the wrenching decision of whether to deal with the conservative group who have taken over Afghanistan, taking at face value the group’s pledge that they would offer amnesty to those who have assisted the regime or international forces and that women would enjoy some level of rights.

Or should the Taliban be treated as pariahs who brought violence and bloodshed during their previous time in power after winning a bitter internecine war with competing regional warlords after the departure of the Soviet Union in defeat in 1989.

Now it is the turn of US forces to once more be cast as losers after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightening return to power by sweeping aside regular government forces who forgot their training and weapons and embraced an unwillingness to fight.

The Taliban already appear set to enjoy a warmer international reception than their draconian 1996-2001 regime did. Yes, they have won the war — and now they must build the peace.

Amid the shock of Kabul’s fall, the chaos surrounding evacuation efforts, and the pervasive sense of betrayal, there is widespread fear that the past 20 years, the tens of thousands of lives lost and the $2 trillion spent, may all have been for nothing.

But not quite. Alongside the initial dire accounting, however, there are the beginnings of a reckoning of what can be salvaged. The Afghanistan the Taliban is inheriting now is very different from the Afghanistan of 2001. Over the past 20 years, infant mortality rates fell by half. Hardly any girls went to school under the first Taliban regime. Now, more than one in three teenage girls can read and write. In 2005, fewer than one in four Afghans had access to electricity. Now, almost all do.

These are gains that are difficult to erase, and it would be self-destructive for the Taliban to try.

What’s clear, however, is that Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader freed from a Pakistani jail on the request of the US less than three years ago, has emerged as an undisputed victor of the 20-year war.

While Haibatullah Akhundzada is the Taliban’s overall leader, Baradar is its political chief and its most public face. In a televised statement on the fall of Kabul, he said the Taliban’s real test was only just beginning and that they had to serve the nation.

Baradar’s return to power embodies Afghanistan’s inability to escape the bloody shackles of its past. The story of his adult life is the story of the country’s unceasing, pitiless conflict.

According to Interpol, Baradar was born in Weet-mak village in Dehrawood district, in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan in 1968 — and is also known to be part of the Popalzai branch of Durrani tribe, the same as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

After the Russians were driven out and the country fell into civil war between rival warlords, Baradar set up a madrasa in Kandahar with his former commander and brother-in-law, Mohammad Omar. Together, the two men founded the Taliban, a movement spearheaded by young scholars dedicated to the religious purification of the country and the creation of an emirate.

Fuelled by religious fervour and widespread hatred of the warlords, the Taliban swept to power in 1996 after a series of stunning conquests of provincial capitals that took the world by surprise, just as the movement has done in recent weeks. Baradar, a highly effective strategist, was a key architect of those victories and played a succession of military and administrative roles in the five-year Taliban regime, and by the time it was ousted by the US and its Afghan allies, he was deputy minister of defence.

During the Taliban’s 20-year exile, Baradar had the reputation of being a potent military leader and a subtle political operator. Western diplomats came to view him as on the wing of the Quetta Shura — the Taliban’s regrouped leadership in exile somewhat amenable to political contacts with Kabul.

Washington, however, was more fearful of his military expertise than it was hopeful about his supposedly moderate leanings. The Central Intelligence Aagency tracked him down to Karachi in 2010 and in February of that year persuaded Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to arrest him.

In 2018, however, Washington’s attitude changed and Donald Trump’s Afghan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, requested Islamabad to release him to lead negotiations in Qatar, based on the belief that he would settle for a power-sharing arrangement.

It was Baradar who signed the Doha agreement with the US in February 2020 in what the Trump administration hailed as a breakthrough towards peace. Given the events of this past week, that appears a mere staging post towards total Taliban victory.

The US and Taliban agreement not to fight each other was supposed to be followed by power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani. Those talks stumbled along with little progress, and it is clear now that Baradar and the Taliban were playing for time, waiting for the Americans to leave and preparing a final offensive. Baradar’s life has taught him patience and confidence in ultimate victory.

Now the question is whether he holds enough sway to at least temper the Taliban as it takes power fully. And what does ‘ultimate victory’ mean for those who have helped build the improved Afghanistan his forces now rule?

With inputs from agencies