By now, we’ve all heard the great news of Mullah Baradar’s capture. As most analysts and experts agree, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was a vitally important figure within the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) – overseeing the day-to-day operations of the group, developing and enforcing the recently released Taliban “Code of Conduct,” serving as an intermediary to Mullah Omar, and running the Taliban’s Shura (and associated sub-committees) based in Quetta, Pakistan. For an excellent profile of Mullah Baradar, check out this article from Newsweek and for some insightful analysis on the potential implications of his capture, check out great articles from The Economist, Josh Foust at Registan, and Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal.
While it’s absolutely critical to examine the events leading up to Mullah Baradar’s capture and the implications of his capture on US policy and operations in the wider Af-Pak region, I’d like to focus on a more immediate question: Who will replace Mullah Baradar? And (closely related) who should the US focus on next within the Taliban? Based on my research and analysis, the answer to both is clear: Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir aka Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul.
Mullah Zakir, born circa 1973, is an Afghan citizen from Helmand province who has been involved with the Taliban movement for the majority of his life. Zakir was a senior fighter during the Taliban regime in the 1990s. In a memorandum prepared for his administrative review board at Guantanamo, Zakir stated he, "felt it would be fine to wage jihad against Americans, Jews, or Israelis if they were invading his country." In 2001, he surrendered to US and Afghan forces in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif as the regime was collapsing. He spent the next several years in custody, was transferred to Guantanamo around 2006 (listed as ISN #008), then to Afghanistan government custody in late 2007 (in Block D of the Pul e Charkhi prison), and was eventually released around May 2008. For more on his circumstances of capture and subsequent release, see these excellent articles from the UK Times Online here and here. Also, for summaries and full transcripts of all three of Zakir’s Guantanamo release boards, check out his Wikipedia entry here.
As Seth Jones (from RAND) explains in his excellent profile, Mullah Zakir wasted little time rejoining his Taliban brothers in their fight against ISAF and ANSF forces, quickly assuming another high-level position within the organization as the Overall Emir for South Afghanistan (responsible for a huge area including the vital provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban’s primary safe haven and command and control (C2) base as well as the logistical hub for Taliban supply, finance, and drug smuggling). Clearly, the fact that Mullah Zakir was appointed to such a prominent position almost immediately after his release speaks to his stature within the organization and helps to confirm reports of his close relationship with both Mullah Omar and Mullah Baradar. Mullah Zakir quickly developed a reputation as a charismatic and effective leader, helping to increase the level and severity of IED attacks across RC-South while simultaneously bolstering the Taliban shadow governance system and minimizing Taliban excesses that could cost them valuable popular support among locals.
In fact, multiple reports suggest that Mullah Zakir was one of the primary authors of the 2009 Taliban Code of Conduct (along with Mullah Baradar). This document (and the enforcement of its provisions) has been critical during the Taliban’s campaign to bolster their control and influence across the country, especially in RC-South – where ISAF leaders have chosen to focus the initial elements of the US “surge” beginning with Operation Moshtarak in Marjah. In addition to his prominent role as the overall emir of South Afghanistan, I also assess that Mullah Zakir plays an important role within the Taliban’s Shura (“council”), which oversees and plans all QST operations from Pakistan. He is likely the de-facto replacement for Mullah Dadullah Lang (EKIA in May 07) as the Chief of the Taliban Military Commission and is also assessed to run the important Accountability Commission (responsible for implementing the Taliban Code of Conduct and acting as the Taliban’s version of “internal affairs”). As the head of these two committees, Mullah Zakir essentially runs both the Taliban’s lethal and non-lethal operations across the entire country, making him an extremely influential leader within the organization.
In the wake of Mullah Baradar’s capture, we can expect the Taliban to choose a competent, experienced, and well-respected replacement. An individual who understands both the lethal military aspects of the fight as well as the equally important imperative to win the support of the local Afghan populace. Mullah Zakir fits this description perfectly. In fact, as Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal notes, it appears that one of the first Taliban commanders to confirm Baradar’s capture in a telephone interview with Bloomberg was none other than “Abdul Qayam,” likely identifiable with Mullah Zakir. I’m confident that our expert interrogators and analysts are already working with the Pakistani Army (and ISI) to fully exploit Mullah Baradar, likely with the primary focus of developing lines to Mullah Omar. Hopefully they are also developing actionable intelligence on other key QST leaders, particularly Mullah Zakir. I expect that Zakir’s influence and importance will increase significantly now that Mullah Baradar is out of the picture.