Pakistan has released at least seven Taliban prisoners at the request of the Afghan government in a move that observers believe will help push forward the stumbling peace process with the militant group.
Responding to a direct request from Afghan envoys visiting Islamabad, Pakistan agreed to release at least seven lower to mid-level militants. The agreement was seen as a sign of Pakistan’s commitment to help broker a peace deal.
“They are second-tier leaders according to my information. But I think this is the first step,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and strategic analyst based in Islamabad.
“I think it shows that Pakistan wants to improve its relations with Afghanistan and that it is interested in the peace process.”
There is mounting anxiety ahead of the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of most US combat troops from Afghanistan and a growing consensus that any peace deal can only be brokered by involving the Taliban in talks. Pakistan, which has had an involved, complicated relationship with the Taliban since the 1990s and is where many senior Taliban leaders are based, is seen as crucial to brokering any agreement.
The release of the prisoners came at the end of a three-day visit to Pakistan by Salahuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan High Peace Council. Mr Rabbani had been pressing for a release of prisoners it believes could help open the way for negotiations.
In particular Afghanistan wanted to see the setting free of the Taliban’s former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was apparently captured in Karachi in February 2010 in a joint operation involving US and Pakistani operatives. He is seen as having considerable influence over Taliban fighters operating in Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis did not release Mr Baradar on this occasion but according to reports they did release between seven to ten lower-ranking fighters. The BBC said that among those set free was the Taliban’s former justice minister, Mullah Turabi, along with two intelligence officials.
Abdul Hamid Mubarez, a member of the Afghan delegation told Reuters: “Pakistan has sent us a very strong message and Pakistan has agreed in principle to start releasing prisoners from today.”
The path towards brokering an agreement between the various factions appears littered with obstacles. In September last year, the then head of the Afghan peace council, Burhannudin Rabbani, was killed by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban peace envoy. In May of this year, Arsala Rahmani, another important member, was shot dead in Kabul in an attack that was subsequently blamed on the Taliban
The Taliban’s willingness to engage in talks also remains unclear and the situation is complicated further by the fact there are almost certainly differences within the militant organisation. The government of Hamid Karzai has failed to secure direct talks with the militants and earlier this spring the Taliban announced it was suspending planned talks with the US in Qatar after it said Washington had issued a series of “vague” statements.
Pakistan has traditionally seen the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset that provided it with powerful influence over Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Pakistan helped the Taliban seize control of the country and it is widely believed that elements within the Pakistan military establishment continue to support some of the militants.
Yet Pakistan is also worried about the potential for instability in Afghanistan following the planned withdrawal of foreign forces. If a civil war breaks out as it did in the 1990s, there could be a new stream of Afghan refugees pouring into Pakistan. There are already many of thousands of refugees living there.
Pakistan is also concerned about the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Mr Karzai was in Delhi where he signed a number of new agreements with India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh. India has already invested $2bn in development projects in the country.
“India supports efforts to achieve a lasting peace in Afghanistan that brings together all sections of Afghan society while preserving the achievements of the last decade, including in the area of women's rights,” said Mr Singh. “We respect the choices that the Afghan people make of their own free will.”