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What We Know About Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, New Taliban Leader


The Pentagon announced last night a drone strike in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province against the group responsible for Thursday's deadly attack outside the airport and in Kabul. That airport's being used by the U.S. military to evacuate Americans. It is also surrounded by a large crowd of Afghan civilians who hope to escape the country. The two blasts killed at least 183 people - 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. military service members. That attack, launched by ISIS-K, an affiliate of the terrorist group in Afghanistan, is a test to the Taliban, which now rules the country. They're expected to form a government that they say will be inclusive and stable. That government will most likely be led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a battle-hardened warrior who just recently returned to Afghanistan after 20 years in exile. NPR's Jackie Northam has this profile.


JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Abdul Ghani Baradar is hardly the swashbuckling figure one would expect leading the militant group that undermined 20 years of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. In his early 50's, Baradar is usually swathed in robes and wearing a turban. His long gray beard is flecked with gray. His hooded eyes look weary.

ASHLEY JACKSON: He was there from the very first days of the Taliban movement before it was a movement. And he's been very, very influential in shaping the face of the movement in recent years.

NORTHAM: Ashley Jackson is co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute. She says Baradar is considered one of the old guard of the Taliban.

JACKSON: He's often referred to in these vague terms as being very thoughtful, very respected, very reflective, a bit of an elder statesman. But the truth about him and about all of the leaders of the movement is that the West knows very, very little about them. And the Taliban has liked to keep it that way.

NORTHAM: Still, some things are known about Baradar. His name means brother. It was bestowed upon him by Mullah Omar, who founded the Taliban in the early 90's. They fought together against the Soviets and worked together when the Taliban seized power in 1994. Marvin Weinbaum is with the Middle East Institute. He says the two men fled to neighboring Pakistan once the U.S. invaded in 2001.

MARVIN WEINBAUM: During this period when the Taliban was rebuilding, he remained close to Mullah Omar and was seen as being someone who had enormous political skills. He was - has often been described as a conciliator.

NORTHAM: Weinbaum says in 2010, Baradar tried to reach out to then Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to work out a political deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But the U.S. wanted a full military victory, and Pakistan wanted to control any political settlement. The CIA and Pakistan arrested Baradar in Karachi in 2010. But by 2018, the U.S. was interested in working out a deal and pressured Pakistan to release Baradar. Ashley Jackson again.

JACKSON: He is someone who they trusted, that they felt comfortable dealing with and who ultimately was essential to striking a deal with the Taliban.

NORTHAM: Carter Malkasian was working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and sat in on a couple rounds of negotiations with the Taliban in 2019. He says Baradar was very quiet and fully engaged.

CARTER MALKASIAN: He has a charisma about him without saying much at all. Part of it is his eyes, how he looks at you when you're talking. And how - like, this very small smile emerges, and he nods, and, like, he cares about what you're saying.

NORTHAM: Malkasian says, at the time, Baradar seemed willing to compromise to reach an agreement. But in the end, that wasn't the case, says the Middle East Institute's Weinbaum.

WEINBAUM: If we trace everything that they have done in negotiating with the United States, we'll see that they never really yielded on anything of any significance. We made all the concessions. So if holding firm to your position is good negotiations, then, indeed, Mullah Baradar has to be seen as a superb negotiator.

NORTHAM: Once the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal, Baradar began a whirlwind diplomatic push, visiting Russia, China and Iran. His message is that the Taliban are different this time around, something he repeated in a recent video statement.


ABDUL GHANI BARADAR: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: In the video, he projects an air of calm and talks about how the Taliban needs to be humble and provide security and hope for the people of Afghanistan. It will be a challenge for Baradar to get many to believe that. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.