- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A top Afghan negotiator said Tuesday he hopes eight Taliban members freed by Pakistan will serve as peace mediators, describing Islamabad’s move as a major step forward for Kabul’s effort to enlist its neighbor’s help in negotiating an end to its 11-year war.

The eight released Monday include the Taliban’s justice minister when the militants ruled Afghanistan before their 2001 overthrow, as well as a onetime guard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. It was the second group of prisoners released by Pakistan.

Although both sides describe the deal as a step toward peace, much about the release remains unclear. Kabul has lobbied hard for Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners as a step toward talks, but Afghanistan simultaneously presses Islamabad to crack down on militants using its territory. It has not said what, if anything, this particular group might bring to the table.

Islamabad, for its part, has never said why it arrested the eight in the first place. Neither side has said where this batch of freed prisoners and a previous group of 18 released in November have gone, or what they will be doing. Another 100 prisoners are believed to remain in Pakistani custody.

In Kabul, the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said the Afghan leader would discuss the peace negotiations with President Obama. Mr. Karzai departs for Washington early next week.

Mr. Karzai also will bring up the ongoing handover of security from NATO to Afghan forces, the training and equipping of the forces, and the shape of a U.S.-Afghan agreement after Washington withdraws most of its troops, spokesman Aimal Faizi told a news conference. NATO plans to hand security responsibility over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

The spokesman welcomed the prisoner release but gave no details.

Ismail Qasemyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, called their release a positive step in the peace process and hoped more releases would follow. It was not known whether the eight actually favored negotiations, but Mr. Qasemyar said it was hoped they would act as intermediaries between the Taliban leadership and the Kabul government.

“This is a big victory from our trip to Pakistan for peace negotiations. This is a good, practical step toward peace from Pakistan,” said Mr. Qasemyar, the council’s international affairs adviser and a key member of a delegation that traveled to Pakistan in November.

Pakistan is seen as key in ending the conflict. Kabul hopes the Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table before the 2014 foreign troop withdrawal.

But Pakistan’s role is mixed. While Pakistan has arrested AfghanTaliban members, usually under pressure from Washington, its powerful military intelligence service also has afforded sanctuary and support for the militants.

Recently, Pakistan appears to have an interest in promoting a negotiated solution to the war across the border, as a post-2014 upheaval could bring harsh consequences, including another surge of refugees into the country.

Pakistan has longstanding ties to the Taliban, in part for geopolitical reasons. It fears that not having some control of who is or might one day be in power in Afghanistan could leave a vacuum which its archenemy, India, could fill.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said the eight detainees were released to aid the peace process and included ex-Justice Minister Nooruddin Turabi and guard Mohammad Azeem. It was not known what role they might play in bringing the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, what links they have to the group’s current leadership or their stance on negotiations.

During Taliban rule, the one-legged, one-eyed Mr. Turabi was considered among the hard-liners in the regime, charged with dispensing harsh justice for even minor offenses against the group’s draconian policies.

Today, Taliban leaders are believed to be split on the question of talks, with some favoring negotiations and others opting for continuing the war.

Waheed Mazhda, a political analyst and former Taliban member, said that Pakistan is playing a double game with Kabul, pretending to support negotiations but releasing the Taliban prisoners to please the Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban, not Kabul. The Pakistan government, he says, does not want its homegrown militants to disrupt upcoming elections.

“Where are they? What are they doing right now?” he said, referring to the 18 already released. He said that he did not believe those released favored negotiations.

The Afghan peace process has made little headway since it began several years ago, riddled by mistrust among the major players, including the United States.

• Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon, Rebecca Santana and Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this article.

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