Skip to main content

Mullah Baradar Akhund, a senior official of the Taliban, seated with a group of men, makes a video statement, in a video recorded in an unidentified location and released on Aug. 16.SOCIAL MEDIA/Reuters

Fireworks exploded into the darkness of Kandahar’s night sky this week as Taliban supporters cheered loudly for the racing motorcade that carried Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar through the streets of the Afghan city where the Taliban was born.

A short time earlier, Mullah Baradar had disembarked from a massive Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a Qatari military transport plane that had flown him back to Afghanistan from his exiled home in the Qatari capital, Doha. The co-founder of the Taliban was given a hero’s welcome at the Kandahar airport, mobbed by a celebrating crowd as he arrived on Tuesday.

For the past three years, Mullah Baradar has been the most visible face of the Taliban: visiting Beijing and Moscow for high-level talks, giving statements in Qatar, signing peace agreements with U.S. negotiators, speaking by phone to then-president Donald Trump and holding meetings with Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Now, in the aftermath of the Taliban’s stunning sweep across the country and its capture of Kabul, there is speculation that the Taliban could appoint him as Afghanistan’s new president.

It’s still not clear whether Mullah Baradar is the most powerful leader within the Taliban, an opaque Islamist militant movement where collective decision-making is often preferred over hierarchical authority. But as the leader of its political bureau, and as one of the masterminds of the peace negotiations that led to the U.S. military withdrawal, he will certainly wield immense influence and perhaps titular authority at the top of the Taliban leadership.

It’s a remarkable reversal of fortune for Mullah Baradar. Three years ago, he was still languishing in a Pakistani prison. He had been arrested in 2010 in the Pakistani city of Karachi after a raid by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistani security forces, reportedly because he resisted Pakistan’s efforts to control the early peace talks.

But after eight years in prison, he was released in 2018 as a result of pressure from U.S. officials, who wanted him in the peace negotiations. He became the head of the Taliban political office in Qatar and led the negotiations in Doha, culminating in a landmark agreement with the United States last year, which he signed on behalf of the Taliban.

On Sunday, after the Taliban swept into Kabul and seized control of the capital, it was Mullah Baradar who gave the Taliban’s first official statement. In a video from Qatar, he admitted that the dramatic nature of the victory was unexpected. “Now comes the test,” he said in calm and sombre tones. “We must meet the challenge of serving and securing our nation, and giving it a stable life.”

Some analysts consider it most likely that the Taliban’s supreme leader will be Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, an Islamic legal scholar who was appointed as the Taliban’s commander in 2016 after his predecessor, Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a U.S. air strike. He is regarded as the Taliban’s spiritual leader and religious arbiter, but he has kept a low profile and his exact whereabouts are still unknown, with some reports suggesting he is hiding somewhere in Pakistan.

Mullah Baradar has been much higher profile, serving as the face of the Taliban in top-level talks. He also enjoys a crucial advantage as the sole survivor of the Taliban’s original founders, and as a direct link to the movement’s first leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, a close friend who personally chose him as his deputy and reputedly gave him the name Baradar, meaning “brother.”

Mullah Baradar’s exact age is unknown, but most accounts say he was born in 1968 to a Pashtun family in Uruzgan, a southern province of Afghanistan. In the 1980s, he was one of the Afghan mujahideen who fought against Soviet occupation. After helping create the Taliban in 1994 and joining its march across the country to seize power in 1996, he reportedly served as a deputy defence minister during the first Taliban regime, until it was deposed by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

He remained a key military commander in its insurgency until he was jailed in Pakistan. After his release from prison, he led the Taliban back onto the world stage. He was the head of a Taliban delegation to a conference in Moscow this year, and last month he travelled to China to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photos showed the two men, wearing face masks, opening their arms in welcoming gestures to each other.

The crowning moment of his diplomatic campaign was his phone conversation with Mr. Trump in March, 2020 – the first time a Taliban leader had spoken to a U.S. president. It helped reinforce the negotiations that led to the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this year.

Mullah Baradar has been relatively moderate within the Taliban movement, according to a researcher who has spent considerable time with Taliban political advisers during the Doha negotiations.

The researcher, whose name is being withheld by The Globe and Mail because of the sensitivity of his role in the talks, said Mullah Baradar has often preferred political solutions over military ones – but events moved so quickly on the ground in Afghanistan this month that the Taliban themselves in Doha were shocked by the speed of the government’s collapse.

He cautioned against any assumption that Mullah Baradar will be the Taliban commander in government. Because the West has killed and captured so many of their leaders, he said, the Taliban now operate on a murky consensus-based decision-making model, often seemingly co-ordinated by WhatsApp group discussions and council meetings where the participants cannot predict who will make the decisive intervention to sway the group.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.