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.
The Afghan High Peace Council, which Mr. Karzai set up to carry out peace negotiations with the Taliban, has given Pakistan a list of prisoners it wants released.
“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.
Mullah Baradar was arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Karachi in February 2010. Elements within the ISI provide safe havens as well as material and logistical support to militant groups inside Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
The ISI reportedly was upset that Mullah Baradar had been freelancing peace deals with the Karzai government without taking Pakistani interests into consideration.
However, Mullah Baradar’s commitment to peace is far from certain.
“Until the last hour of his liberty, Mullah Baradar was directly commanding the insurgency against the Afghan government and the international forces,” the former Western official said. “Since his capture we have been barraged with assertions that he was one whisker away from making peace. It’s bananas.”
“Baradar’s release won’t make a huge difference; instead, it would leave Karzai with some embarrassing explaining to do because day by day it would be difficult to sustain the myth that Baradar is Mahatma Gandhi,” he added.
Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi discussed the release of top Taliban officials, including Mullah Baradar, on recent visits to the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S. has sought to accelerate the peace process with an eye on an end-of-2014 deadline to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan.
“The Afghan defense minister has left [these meetings] a happy man,” Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, told reporters at a meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington on Feb. 5.
While Ms. Rehman declined to say whether Mullah Baradar would soon be released, Afghan officials say they have received assurances from Pakistan that he will be freed.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001 when they were toppled in a U.S.-led invasion for hosting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban abandoned later U.S.-led efforts to make peace last March, citing the Obama administration’s inaction on its demand to release five high-value detainees from the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It refuses to talk to the Karzai administration, which it derisively refers to as Western puppet.
Last week, Mr. Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met at British Prime Minister David Cameron’s official country residence and committed themselves to achieving the goal of a peace settlement over the next six months.
The former Western official said it is unlikely that any of the released prisoners would contribute to reconciliation because there is no real peace process.
“Why would they encourage others to join reconciliation when there is no process for them to be a part of in the first place?” he asked.
Mr. Karzai and Mr. Zardari also have agreed to improve coordination on the release of Taliban prisoners.
“Up until this point, coordination on this matter from Pakistani authorities has been almost nonexistent,” the second Afghan official said.
Pakistani officials say they support an Afghan-led peace process.
Pakistan is cooperating “quite diligently” on releasing Taliban prisoners, Ms. Rehman said.
The Karzai administration has asked Pakistan to put into place a mechanism to track the freed prisoners, all of whom are Afghan nationals.
Better coordination with Pakistan is important, said Janan Mosazai, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry in Kabul. “We want to make sure [the released Taliban prisoners] play a constructive and helpful role in advancing our peace efforts.”
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.