No Comment — February 16, 2010, 12:08 pm

What to Do With a Captured Taliban Commander?

While Republicans in America were babbling about the Obama Administration’s “weakness” in battling terrorist groups, U.S. forces on the ground, now in the midst of a major military operation to ferret out the Taliban, were scoring a dramatic success. Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins at the New York Times report:

The Taliban’s top military commander was captured several days ago in Karachi, Pakistan, in a secret joint operation by Pakistani and American intelligence forces, according to American government officials. The commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is an Afghan described by American officials as the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the American-led war in Afghanistan started more than eight years ago. He ranks second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder and a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mullah Baradar has been in Pakistani custody for several days, with American and Pakistani intelligence officials both taking part in interrogations, according to the officials.

The focus will now be on interrogation. “It was unclear whether he was talking, but the officials said his capture had provided a window into the Taliban and could lead to other senior officials. Most immediately, they hope he will provide the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who is the group’s spiritual leader.”

How long will we have to wait before Republicans call for Mullah Baradar to be waterboarded? Given that he’s in Pakistani hands, we can expect he will face rough treatment whatever the Americans decide to do. Still, the Republicans now take it as an article of faith, despite evidence to the contrary, that only torture techniques will bring in useful data. Why would they wait a second before applying torture techniques to a religious leader? Or to a military commander? Who cares that the Taliban were once broadly recognized as the government of Afghanistan and the forces that Mullah Baradar commands as its armed forces? Why should we be concerned that the torture of a prominent public figure may inflame the population and lead to recruitment that offsets our recent victories?

These are questions that American military commanders, working with established military doctrine and the new counter-insurgency doctrine for Afghanistan, would have to parse carefully. Their immediate objective would be to gain intelligence to aid the military effort, including the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and other leaders. But they have longer range strategic considerations to keep in mind as well. Contrast that with the political chatterboxes who populate our Sunday talk shows, starting with Dick Cheney and his daughter. Are they really concerned about a long-term struggle with the Taliban, or about bringing stability and security to Afghanistan? I’m far from persuaded that they are. They’re engaged in a cheap political game in which they hope to position themselves as “more aggressive” on national security issues.

One other point needs to be made. The White House knew it was holding an ace as the weekend talk shows came around, and with them the predictable attacks from Cheney. Obviously, they could have scored some easy points with the announcement of Mullah Baradar’s capture. They elected not to do this. As the Times notes, Washington pleaded with them to hold back on reporting it to enable the military the maximum advantage from information gained before knowledge of his capture surfaced. That shows the right priorities: national security first, and political PR trailing off in the distance. It’s what we should expect from political leaders in office, and it has been very little in evidence over the eight years of the Bush-Cheney Administration.

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