Afghan President Hamid Karzai is pushing Pakistan to release more Taliban prisoners, including the group’s deputy leader, in a move aimed at reviving peace talks with the militants, despite concern within his own administration that the battle-hardened Islamists could rejoin a decadelong insurgency that seeks to topple the government in Kabul.
Afghan and Pakistani officials say they are unable to monitor the freed prisoners or ensure that they join peace negotiations. The prisoners are being released unconditionally.
The notion of releasing prisoners without any conditions is “bizarre,” said a former Western official who monitors the region and spoke on background in order to freely discuss security issues. “It’s being done on a wing and a prayer.”
“They are perpetuating a fantasy,” the former official added. “The main tactical concern for the Taliban is how to get their men out of jail.”
Since November, Pakistan has released 26 Taliban prisoners, senior officials as well as rank-and-file militants, in two batches on Kabul’s request. They had been apprehended in Pakistani cities and the lawless northwestern tribal region, where the Taliban and other militant groups plan and carry out operations against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops across the border in Afghanistan.
“Without strict monitoring or oversight, I think it’s very likely that the majority of the released prisoners will rejoin the insurgency,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst who leads the Afghanistan and Pakistan team at the Institute for the Study of War.
“One historical pattern of note is that released prisoners who are intent on rejoining the insurgency often are rewarded with senior posts and are revered by the junior fighting corps,” he added. “It’s a good way to reinvigorate the insurgency without getting anything in return.”
Some Afghan officials share those concerns. There is a real concern that the freed Taliban prisoners will return to killing Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops, said an Afghan official who spoke on background.
The Karzai administration remains undeterred in its quest to free the prisoners.
“We have been told [by Pakistan] that more releases will happen in the coming days, weeks and months,” the Afghan official said.
Former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin, who brutally enforced strict Islamic Shariah law while in government, is among those who have been set free.
Most of the freed prisoners have reconnected with their old comrades, but they are not on the battlefield largely because of the lull in the insurgency during the frigid winter months, according to multiple sources.
Mr. Karzai’s government is particularly interested in the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, longtime deputy to the Taliban’s one-eyed leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and the most prominent Taliban militant in Pakistani custody.
“[Mullah Baradar’s] name has been at the top of the list each of the numerous times we’ve requested the release of Taliban prisoners from Pakistani jails over the years,” said a second Afghan official who spoke on background.