ISLAMABAD — Pakistan released its highest-ranking Afghan Taliban prisoner on Saturday in an effort to jump-start Afghanistan’s struggling peace process, Pakistani officials said, but some doubt he will make much of a difference.
The Afghan government has long demanded that Pakistan free Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former deputy leader who was arrested in a joint raid with the CIA in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010.
The United States is also keen for the Afghan government to strike a peace deal with the Taliban before it withdraws most of its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But the U.S. pressured Pakistan not to release Baradar because of concerns he would return to the battlefield, officials said.
Baradar was released Saturday morning, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry without providing further details, including where the prisoner was held.
Baradar will remain in Pakistan after his release and will be provided with tight security, said Pakistani intelligence and security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. He will be free to meet with anyone he chooses, they said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry announced earlier that Baradar would be released Saturday “to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process.”
Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a member of the council tasked by the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban, praised Baradar’s release, saying “we are very much hopeful that Mullah Baradar can play an important role in the peace process.”
Baradar, who is around 50 years old, was one of the founding members of the Taliban along with the group’s leader Mullah Omar. He served as a senior military leader and defense minister after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996.
Not everyone agreed that Baradar’s release would contribute to peace, saying his long imprisonment had robbed him of both his influence and position in the Taliban.
“This is a very, very meager step. It will not bring peace. It is just a show,” said Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, an Afghan political commentator and talk show host. “He doesn’t have an importance among the Taliban leadership, or any other leadership that would be able to deliver anything with authority.”
Pakistan has released at least 33 Taliban prisoners over the last year at the Afghan government’s request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations between the insurgents and Kabul. But there is no sign that the previous releases have helped peace talks, and some of the prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government.
The releases ended up causing friction with Kabul — and Washington — which were both frustrated that Pakistan was not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of the former inmates. Pakistani officials have said they felt slighted by the criticism because there was no request to keep tabs on the prisoners.
The U.S. asked Pakistan to keep Baradar under house arrest rather than set him free, said senior Pakistani and American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.