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A Focused Look At Abdul Ghani Baradar, Who (For Now) Leads The Taliban

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nine days ago, we spoke with historian Carter Malkasian to talk about the leadership of the Taliban, about who specifically might be running Afghanistan in the days to come. Well, today we wanted to check back on how that picture may be coming into focus, especially now that CIA Director William Burns has met with the Taliban's top political leader. That would be Abdul Ghani Baradar in Afghanistan. Carter Malkasian, also a former advisor on strategy to the chairman of Joint Chiefs, is back with us.

Hello again.

CARTER MALKASIAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's great to be here.

KELLY: So last time we spoke, we talked about Baradar and we talked about him as one of the early founding members of the Taliban. I remember you described him as the CEO of the movement for a while, while other leaders were in hiding. How would you describe his current role?

MALKASIAN: His current role has been to oversee the political affairs of the Taliban, and that really has meant the negotiating effort that's gone on in Doha. And it seems like that role has now developed into also being the person who is negotiating and discussing a future constitution and a future political settlement for the country with key Afghan leaders such as Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah.

KELLY: And he's clearly someone that the U.S. is willing to talk to, having sent CIA Director Burns to Kabul to sit down with Baradar this week. What do you think the significance of that meeting was? How did you read it?

MALKASIAN: It's hard for me to read the exact significance of it because when it comes to the United States' relationship with the Taliban, there are a lot of little things that always need to be discussed - things like the counterterrorism guarantees that they have put in place, details about the evacuation right now. So there's just a lot of small tactical elements that need to be dealt with.

KELLY: Would you sketch in a little bit more of Baradar's history and background? Because aside from these relatively recent meetings with U.S. officials, he has a long, complicated history with CIA.

MALKASIAN: He has a long, complicated history overall. So Baradar is a very charismatic figure in a very Afghan kind of way. He's a quiet person, but he pays attention when you talk to him. He is very interested in what people say, and he has a way of talking to you that makes you feel like he's empathetic and that he really cares about what you're saying. It's very similar to many of the tribal leaders I met in a variety of places in Afghanistan over the years. So he kind of nods in the same way, holds his hand to his chest the same way, shakes hands the same way. And this actually can be a little bit different from some of the other Taliban who can tend to be a little bit more standoffish.

KELLY: He was arrested in Pakistan and held for a while and then released on house arrest, and then was released because of U.S. pressure.

MALKASIAN: There was all these questions running around in 2017 and 2018 about, was the Taliban Political Commission real? This is a movement, of course, we know that has a leader who we barely have ever seen - never seen and barely heard from. So wanted to make sure that - we had a great interest in speaking to someone who is clearly of a very high level. And Baradar ended up being that.

KELLY: When we spoke last time, we talked about all the competing factions within the Taliban. And I asked you, is Abdul Ghani Baradar emerging as the guy? Is he likely to be the person running Afghanistan going forward? And you said, it's not clear yet. Has the picture become any more clear?

MALKASIAN: Actually, it still remains unclear to me. There is no government set up yet. There's no - they don't actually have an announced leader. So if he was to be going and doing these highly political things, high-profile things in Kabul before these things were established, that would cause a lot of internal discontent within the Taliban. So what I think that's more likely what we're seeing right now is that the rest of the Taliban do not view him as a threat to the leadership, that they think it's OK for him to be there in this high-profile role. Although, anything can happen in Afghanistan, so we'll see.

KELLY: Carter Malkasian, a historian of Afghanistan and author of "The American War in Afghanistan: A History," thank you.

MALKASIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.