Capture of Taliban commander and the jockeying for a post-US Afghanistan

Obama's 2011 deadline for a US pullout has pushed Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan into action. The capture of Taliban commander Baradar fits into a contest for influence.

Events in Afghanistan have moved fast and dramatically since Dec. 1, when President Obama set an initial deadline of July 2011 for withdrawal of US combat forces.

Here’s the primary reason: There’s nothing like a superpower planning to exit a region to focus the minds of the key players.

They’re all trying to figure out how to fill the coming power vacuum.Last week, for example, Pakistan finally helped the CIA in capturing the Taliban’s second in command for Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Not only is this a blow to the Taliban fighting American and other NATO forces, it may help Pakistan improve its position for influence in Afghanistan against rival India after the United States departs.

Another likely result of the promised US withdrawal was India’s invitation to reopen talks with Pakistan – and Pakistan’s quick acceptance. The talks are slated to start Feb. 25.

These talks would build on recent efforts by the two nations to withdraw large numbers of troops from their border, a sign of lessening tension and a new focus on other adversaries. In India’s case, the fresh concern is on the border with a newly belligerent China. For Pakistan, the recent focus is on an internal threat from a more aggressive Pakistani Taliban that is now targeting the military.

India also feels more secure as a regional and global leader. It has formed a tighter bond with the US and wants to improve its market economy. It may also believe Pakistan is more serious about stopping terrorist attacks like the 2008 rampage in Mumbai (Bombay) by Pakistani-based gunmen that killed nearly 170 people. Pakistan’s stronger anti-Taliban stance certainly suggests it may no longer look the other way if terrorists are plotting against India’s control of disputed territory in Kashmir.

The promised US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also prompted that country’s weak president, Hamid Karzai, to shape up his government – especially its security forces, its fight against corruption, and its development efforts.

The big test for President Karzai lies in his ability to finally take charge in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. A joint Afghan-American military offensive that began there Saturday – the largest offensive since the US invasion in 2001 – is premised on the hope that Afghan government leaders can hold and sustain the area with proper governance.

All these moves by India, Pakistan, and Karzai to maneuver for a post-US era still leave the question of what to do with the Afghan Taliban. The rising strength of the insurgency since 2006 means it likely can’t be defeated militarily but merely weakened enough to allow negotiations aimed at peeling off certain parts of its ranks.

But which parts? The US and India as yet don’t see the top Taliban echelon agreeing to three key terms: breaking ties with Al Qaeda, respecting Afghanistan’s Constitution, and renouncing violence. They see mainly local insurgents and regional commanders splitting off. And they don’t want the government in Kabul to make compromises that would set up a partially Islamic regime.

On the other hand, Karzai, along with Pakistan – which has had close ties to the Afghan Taliban – see the potential for talks with top Taliban leaders. They may be more willing to accept compromise with the Islamic group.

This dispute is a welcome luxury after the moves by these various players to end the war and prepare for a US pullout. The capture of Mr. Baradar, who could now possibly play a role in negotiating an end to the conflict, only hastens events that may make the path easier for US forces to leave.

Setting a deadline has a way of doing just that.

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