Pakistan to release Taliban’s former second-in-command to help Afghan peace talks

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar would be the most senior Afghan detainee to be released to date

Pakistan has announced that it is ready to release the Afghan Taliban’s former second-in-command in a move aimed at helping reconciliation in Afghanistan ahead of proposed peace talks.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be released later this month, the head of Pakistan’s foreign ministry said. “In principle, we have agreed to release him. The timing is being discussed,” Sartaj Aziz told Reuters.

The release of Afghan Taliban prisoners held by Pakistan has been a key demand of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. During a visit to Islamabad last month, Mr Karzai urged the new Pakistani government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to help his efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Last week, Pakistan released seven more prisoners from custody. Since last year, Pakistan has occasionally released prisoners in small numbers to help move along peace talks, but has guarded its influence over the imprisoned insurgents.

In a step that will probably disappoint Mr Karzai, Mullah Baradar will not be released to Afghan custody but granted freedom of movement from Pakistan. For years, Pakistan has leveraged its influence over the Afghan Taliban and its custody of their prisoners in talks with Kabul.

Mullah Baradar would be the most senior Afghan detainee to be released to date. The move represents a willingness on the part of the new Pakistani government to improve relations with Mr Karzai’s administration.

Analysts have suggested that Mullah Baradar is likely to go underground, perhaps to Pakistan’s tribal areas and take shelter among other Afghan Taliban militants there. The move may encourage the Afghan Taliban to look more favourably on talks with Mr Karzai.

“Mr Karzai wanted, among others, Mullah Baradar released; this issue came up during his visit,” said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a professor of political science. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will facilitate the dialogue.”

Mullah Baradar is a member of the same Popalzai subtribe as Mr Karzai, and therefore could offer the Afghan President a much-coveted opening with the Afghan Taliban.

Relations between Mr Karzai and Pakistan soured after members of the Afghan Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, with the hoisting of their old flag.

After meetings with Mr Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister has tried to ease Mr Karzai’s concerns by suggesting that a new Taliban office be opened for prospective talks in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

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