ISLAMABAD – The Afghan foreign minister pressed Pakistan on Friday to free more Taliban detainees in Islamabad's custody in a bid to help coax the militant group into peace negotiations to end the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan, officials said.
Afghanistan's top diplomat, Zalmay Rasoul, pushed his case in talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar, during a one-day visit to Islamabad. Their discussions followed Pakistan's decision earlier this month to release nine Taliban prisoners in a move that Kabul welcomed as a positive first step and an indication that Islamabad supports the stalled Afghan peace process.
The cooperation of Pakistan, which has longstanding ties to the Taliban, is seen as key to jumpstarting an Afghan peace process that has made little headway since it began several years ago, hobbled by distrust among the major players, including the United States. The Afghan and U.S. governments accuse Islamabad of backing insurgents -- an allegation Pakistan denies -- and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.
With Afghan presidential elections and the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops looming in 2014, Afghanistan and its international allies are trying to push a peace process with the Taliban to bring an end to the conflict.
Afghanistan needs Pakistan's help in reaching out to top Taliban leaders, but still insists that peace talks be led by Afghans, saying it will fight those who try to interfere.
Rasoul, the Afghan foreign minister, was expected to press Pakistan to free more Taliban prisoners during his one-day visit to Islamabad on Friday, including the militant group's former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the talks.
It's unclear whether Pakistan made any concrete commitments to free additional prisoners, including Baradar, who was captured in Pakistan in 2010 because he reportedly was having secret talks with the Afghans.
The Pakistani foreign minister said during a joint news conference that the release of prisoners was "discussed thoroughly, and I'm quite sure that we would all agree that we are making forward movement."
Khar said that the two countries had "operationalized" a joint commission announced last year to address the prisoner release issue. They also agreed to hold a conference of Muslim scholars in January to speak out against terrorism.
Pakistan also shared with Afghanistan a draft of a strategic partnership agreement the two countries hope to negotiate over the next year, Khar said. Afghanistan signed a similar agreement with Pakistan's archenemy India last year, causing consternation in Islamabad.
The Afghan foreign minister welcomed Pakistan's efforts, saying "we want all Afghan Taliban to return in their country, join the constitutional political process there and play their part in furthering the construction and development of our nation."
The Taliban prisoners released earlier by Pakistan, including some senior leaders, are believed to still be in the country, said the Afghan official who spoke ahead of Rasoul's visit. Afghanistan hopes the freed militants will play a constructive role in the peace process, the official said, while acknowledging that it is too soon to know what role, if any, they will hold.
While it's unclear whether the Taliban are interested in negotiating peace, the official maintained that there are indeed key Taliban figures who support a political process to end the violence, but that some of them are afraid to establish direct contact with the Afghan government because some of those who did in the past were killed or detained.
Afghanistan wants Pakistan to encourage Taliban leaders to join the Afghan-led peace process and allow Taliban negotiators to travel to third countries for talks without detaining them or putting pressure on their families, the official said.
Informal contacts have been established with Taliban officials in recent years, but so far no formal negotiations have begun.
Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul and an expert on Taliban issues, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that about two months ago he met informally in Qatar with several Taliban figures, including Tayyab Agha, a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former deputy at two ministries during the Taliban regime.
He said the Taliban are interested in talks, but with the U.S. and not with the Afghan government. If any negotiations begin, they would be between the U.S. and the Taliban, he said.
"If there was a good result from that, then the Afghan government could be involved," he said.