ISLAMABAD – Pakistan plans to release more Afghan militant detainees in an attempt to boost the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan ahead of the departure of international troops next year, a top Pakistani official said.
Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani said Pakistan has initiated the process of releasing those Afghan detainees in its custody who they think will help facilitate the reconciliation process. His comments were made during a press conference Friday in Abu Dhabi and relayed by the Foreign Ministry on Saturday. He did not give a timetable.
In general, Kabul has pressed hard for Islamabad to release its detainees, with some officials saying that they hope the released Taliban can serve as intermediaries. But Washington is concerned about specific prisoners who they consider dangerous.
Jilani did not specifically mention whether Pakistan would release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban whom Kabul has been pushing Pakistan to release.
Senior U.S. and Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the U.S. has informed the Pakistani authorities that it was reluctant to see Baradar go free and asked for prior notice so it can try to track his movements.
Pakistan has upward of 100 Afghan prisoners in its custody including Baradar, who was arrested by Pakistan in the southern city of Karachi in 2010. The circumstances of his arrest, like that of most of the detainees, remain unclear. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of providing shelter to some of the Taliban.
The U.S. and Afghan officials said a similar U.S. request for notification upon release has been made for another prisoner, Abdul Samad, according to the officials. Samad, who is from Kandahar, the former Taliban headquarters, is a specialist in making suicide jackets and came to prominence within the Taliban movement after its collapse in 2001.
Several senior Taliban have already been released by Pakistan including former governors and ministers. One of those released was the once-feared Vice and Virtue Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who oversaw a legion of Taliban fighters who roamed the streets searching for women who were not properly covered, or residents listening to music or watching television, both of which were forbidden under the Taliban.
In November Pakistan also released Anwar ul Haq Mujahed, a senior Taliban commander from eastern Nangarhar province whose release was sought by the Afghan High Peace Council although he had been implicated in several major attacks in eastern Afghanistan against coalition and Afghan forces.
The Afghan peace process has made little headway since it began several years ago, hobbled by distrust among the major players, including the United States. But it appears to be getting a new push in recent months with a high-level peace commission traveling from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Pakistani officials releasing 26 Taliban prisoners since November.
Part of the reason for the recent peace push is that Pakistani government and military officials are worried that if American troops leave without a plan in place, Afghanistan could deteriorate into another round of vicious infighting. After the Soviets pulled out in 1989, many of the militants who had helped best that superpower then turned on each other in what played out as a vicious war across the country.
A repeat of that scenario could have horrific consequences for Pakistan, such as a flood of Afghan refugees across its borders and increased fighting in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the military is already trying to suppress a stubborn insurgency.
The Afghan and U.S. governments have long accused Islamabad of backing insurgents -- an allegation Pakistan denies -- and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.
Whether the recent detainee releases will play a significant role in the peace process remains to be seen. The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, said on Thursday that although their release was a positive step, there was no indication of where the former detainees had gone.
He said the Afghan government was trying to ensure they did not return to the insurgency.
He said the Pakistanis so far have taken a "hands-off kind of approach to the people that they have released."
All officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to the media.