ISLAMABAD – At least half the Afghan Taliban recently freed from Pakistani prisons have rejoined the insurgency, a Pakistani intelligence official says, throwing into question the value of such goodwill gestures that the Afghan government requested to restart a flagging peace process.
A senior Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could talk freely confirmed that "some" newly freed Taliban have returned to the battlefield.
The development underscores the difficulties in reaching a political deal with the Taliban before the end of 2014, when NATO and U.S. troops are scheduled to have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many Taliban released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay have also gone underground.
Despite some recent signs from the Taliban that they are willing to share power and want to avoid a civil war, the militants may well be playing for time until 2014. That's also when the Afghans are scheduled to elect a new president to succeed Hamid Karzai, whom the insurgents consider an American puppet.
The Taliban have long refused to speak directly with Karzai or his government. They have said they will negotiate only with the United States, which has held secret talks with them in the Gulf state of Qatar. But at Karzai's insistence, the U.S. has since sought to have the insurgents speak directly with the Afghan government. Western officials privately say that the talks have so far gone no further.
At the request of the Afghan High Peace Council late last year, Pakistan freed 24 prisoners to coax a reluctant Taliban leadership to talk peace directly with Karzai's government, according to Ismail Qasemyar, a senior peace council official.
The freed prisoners are all Afghan Taliban, who are battling NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Many of these fighters use neighboring Pakistan as a home base, particularly in winter months.
The release of the prisoners appears to have backfired, however, with the intelligence official saying about half of them have returned to the Taliban. The outcome is further testing an already troubled relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and drawing U.S. complaints that Pakistan has not done enough to keep track of the freed Taliban.
Frustrated by the criticism, Islamabad said it doesn't have the resources to track the prisoners and that no request was made to follow the freed Taliban or to hand them over to the Afghan government. Afghan authorities have also released Taliban prisoners from their own jails, occasionally over the objections of the U.S. military, and have since lost track of many of them.
When Pakistan has arrested Afghan Taliban fighters in recent years, it has often come in response to pressure from the United States or with American assistance. The Pakistani military is far more interested in carrying out offensives against Pakistani Taliban, who have declared war on the state of Pakistan and are responsible for tens of thousands of Pakistani deaths as well as the deaths of about 4,000 Pakistani soldiers.
But among the Afghan Taliban prisoners that Pakistan recently released at the request of the Afghan government were several it would have preferred to keep in jail, the Pakistani intelligence official said Monday.
Pakistan, for example, wanted to keep Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed in prison, said Pakistan and Afghan officials. Mujahed was an insurgent commander responsible for most of the more spectacular attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province. But the High Peace Council insisted he be freed.
One peace council member said Mujahed's release was demanded by Hajji Din Mohammed, former provincial governor and a peace council member. Mohammed's links to Mujahed date back to the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when he served as a senior lieutenant in the U.S.-financed Hezb-e-Islami Khalis group run by Mujahed's father, Younus Khalis.
Mohammed delayed the Afghan Peace Council's Nov. 14 departure from Pakistan until Mujahed was released. At the time the U.S. also objected to his release, said a senior American official who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely. On Dec. 1, two weeks after he was freed, a coordinated Taliban assault took place on a U.S. base in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. There was no claim of responsibility from Mujahed.
In a series of interviews in the Afghan capital, members of the High Peace Council as well as Karzai's government confirmed Pakistan's reluctance to release some prisoners including Mujahed. They also said the releases were unconditional.
"It was a risk we felt was worth taking," said Amin Arsala, a senior adviser to Karzai.
Senior Peace Council member Qasemyar said the council made no demands of Pakistan or the freed prisoners prior to their release.
Other Afghan council members and the Pakistani intelligence official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department at King's College in Britain, questioned the value of Karzai's goodwill gestures because his second and final term as president ends in 2014, which coincides with the end of the troop drawdown. That, he said, leaves little incentive for the Taliban to open talks with the Afghan president.
"I was never very optimistic about these Afghan government moves given the categorical statement of every Taliban-linked person with whom I have spoken that the Taliban leadership would never negotiate a settlement with Karzai, but would always try first to do a deal with the U.S.," he told the AP.
Lieven added that "unless the Taliban high command actually ordered a released Taliban figure to negotiate with Karzai," which has not happened, then "the first thing I would expect them to do would be to rejoin the insurgency precisely in order to show that they are not traitors and haven't been turned."
The Pakistani intelligence official said more Taliban will be freed eventually and that the Afghan authorities will be given prior notice, in keeping with an agreement reached at a meeting earlier this month between Karzai, Pakistan President Asif Zardari and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Qasemyar said the council wanted time to notify the families of prisoners.
"We want to let them know that we worked for the release of their family members so that we can create some goodwill and in the hope that they will convince their relatives to work for peace," said Qasemyar.
Another contentious issue is the Afghan demand for the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's former deputy chief. Karzai and the High Peace Council have made several requests for his release, but the United States has asked Pakistan not to release Baradar, said U.S. and Afghan officials.
"He won't be released anytime soon," the Pakistani intelligence official said. According to U.S. and Afghan officials, Washington wants to keep track of Baradar if he is ever released.
A further indication that some of the freed prisoners have returned to the Taliban was the fact that the insurgents issued a statement last month on behalf of the former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who was released from a Pakistani jail in December.
"We, the prisoners freed by Pakistan," the statement said, "have decided amongst ourselves that we will only decide on our future course of action when the rest of the prisoners are freed and after consultation with them."
More than 100 Afghan Taliban fighters remain in Pakistani custody.
Kathy Gannon is The AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed at www.twitter.com/kathygannon