x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Pakistan releases top Afghan Taliban prisoner

Pakistan sets free former Taliban defence minister to help facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the militant group.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan released its highest-ranking Afghan Taliban prisoner on Saturday in an effort to jump-start Afghanistan’s struggling peace process.

The Afghan government has long demanded that Pakistan free Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former deputy leader who was arrested in a joint raid with the CIA in Karachi in 2010.

The United States is also keen for the Afghan government to strike a peace deal with the Taliban before it withdraws most of its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. But the US pressured Pakistan not to release Mr Baradar because of concerns he would return to the battlefield, Pakistani officials said.

Mr Baradar will remain in Pakistan after his release and will be provided with tight security, said Pakistani intelligence and security officials. He will be free to meet anyone he chooses.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry has said Mr Baradar would be released “to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process”.

Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a member of the council tasked by the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban, praised Mr Baradar’s release, saying “we are very much hopeful that Mullah Baradar can play an important role in the peace process”.

Mr Baradar, who is around 50 years old, was one of the founding members of the Taliban along with the group’s leader Mullah Omar. He served as a top military leader and defence minister after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996.

Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who served as foreign minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, also hailed Mr Bardar’s release and cautioned Pakistan not to try to control his movements now that he is free.

“They also have to allow him contact with Taliban leaders and for him to be useful for peace in Afghanistan,” Mr Muttawakil said.

Not everyone agreed that Mr Baradar’s release would contribute to peace, saying his long imprisonment had robbed him of both his influence and position in the Taliban.

“This is a very, very meagre step. It will not bring peace. It is just a show,” said Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, an Afghan political commentator and talk show host. “He doesn’t have an importance among the Taliban leadership, or any other leadership that would be able to deliver anything with authority.”

Pakistan has released at least 33 Taliban prisoners over the past year at the Afghan government’s request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations between the insurgents and Kabul. But there is no sign that the previous releases have helped peace talks, and some of the prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government.

* Associated Press