So far, analysis I've seen on the stunning capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar (here, here and here) has largely focused on the implications for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. But the capture is potentially just as significant because of what it reveals about the condition of the U.S. - Pakistan relationship, and what that relationship is likely to look like going forward. With the necessary caveat that the opacity of U.S. - Pakistan relations can make analysis subject to speculation, this capture still strikes me as significant on a number of levels.
Most immediately, as the New York Times notes, "[t]he participation of Pakistan's spy service could suggest a new level of cooperation from Pakistan's leaders, who have been ambivalent about American efforts to crush the Taliban." Indeed, Bruce Riedel, who led the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review version 1.0, welcomed the raid as a "sea change in Pakistani behavior."
There can be little doubt that this is a significant shift. Pakistan has never proved this cooperative when it comes to the Afghan Taliban, something Pakistan watchers, myself included, have long taken as a sign of fundamentally divergent interests. Still, is it as surprising as Riedel says? I'm not convinced. Leaving aside the rough absence of previous cooperation related to threats to Afghanistan, it's not as if there haven't been examples of American-Pakistani cooperation in other areas. If Saturday you had looked back on the uptick in drone strikes over the last year, the presence of U.S. Special Forces trainers in Pakistan, and the Pakistani military's offensives in places like Swat and South Waziristan, would it have been so hard to imagine a point in the not-so-distant future when the two countries would team up against the Afghan Taliban? In fact, there actually has been a recent example of the two countries' Afghanistan policies drawing into closer, if far from perfect, alignment: last week's hint that Pakistan was prepared to use its leverage over the Haqqanis to get them to the negotiating table for an Afghanistan political settlement.
It seems to me the important question here is what changed that made the Pakistanis suddenly willing to go take action on the Afghanistan issue, when, as the Times notes, "American officials have speculated that Pakistani security officials could have picked up Mullah Baradar long ago?"
Josh Foust thinks it could be a quid-pro-quo, hypothesizing that "We paid a price for this," and urging Pakistan watchers to look for reciprocation in the weeks to come. While I don't doubt that this raid cost us something, why should we leave out the range of factors that might have plausibly induced or pressured Pakistan's government into making this shift? Come to think of it, this seems like exactly the sort of coordination that billions in foreign assistance, military advising and equipment, as well as months of agonizing diplomatic activity are supposed to achieve. I won't yet declare this a victory for U.S. diplomacy, but the trends do seem to be a lot better than they were when the GAO said the U.S. basically didn't have a Pakistan policy.
Finally, without drawing too much of a causal connection here, I do want to point out that this is exactly the kind of action the U.S. should want to derive from signals to Afghanistan's neighbors about an eventual end to American involvement in the region. I'm one of those people who thinks that Pakistan's actions in Afghanistan haven't been the most helpful and may end up hurting Pakistan in the future. But I also recognize that up until this point, American efforts to convince the Pakistanis of that fact haven't been tremendously successful. Continuing to convey a message to Pakistan that they can't expect the U.S. to be the guarantors of Afghanistan's stability forever seems like a decent way to alter that dynamic, especially since there now appears to be a correlation between more helpful action from Pakistan and the first explicit Presidential announcement of a transition to American disengagement.