The gesture came more than two weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled to Islamabad to ask the Pakistani government for help in restarting peace negotiations with the Islamist insurgents. There were expectations that Pakistan might turn over some prisoners to him then, but Karzai returned empty-handed.
Afghan officials played down the significance of Pakistan’s gesture Saturday, declining to comment publicly but privately calling it a small step toward reviving the peace talks. They have long accused next-door Pakistan of seeking to destabilize their government and of covertly supporting the Taliban.
Afghan officials also appeared to be annoyed that the men were released straight from Pakistani prisons and allowed to go free, rather than being delivered to Afghan authorities. While hoping such former prisoners can participate in negotiations, they also fear the men may take up arms again if not carefully monitored.
Dadullah, the most important prisoner to be freed, is the younger brother of Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander who was killed by British forces in southern Afghanistan in 2007. Mullah Dadullah had been known for his cruel tactics of suicide bombings and beheadings. The brother replaced him as commander in several southern provinces.
Afghan and U.S. officials view Pakistan as having a crucial role in bringing Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, although Taliban and Pakistani leaders have said that is an exaggerated perception of Pakistan’s influence. Many senior Taliban, including top leader Mohammed Omar, are believed to live in Pakistan.
Pakistani security forces have played a complicated role in the triangular relationship with Afghanistan and the United States. They have collaborated with U.S. agencies in tracking and arresting both Afghan and Pakistani militants, but they have also been said to detain them selectively for their own reasons.
One of the most important Taliban prisoners in Pakistan, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was not among those freed Saturday. Baradar was captured in Pakistan in 2010, and many Afghans believe this was done to stop him from promoting peace talks. Afghan officials Saturday said they expected “additional and more significant steps” by Pakistan, including the release of Baradar.
Afghan and U.S. officials hope that moderate leaders like Baradar can draw their fellow militants into peace talks and change the insurgency into a political group. Otherwise, there is growing concern that the Taliban will intensify its military campaign after most U.S. combat forces leave the country by the end of next year.
Special correspondent Hussain Shaiq reported from Islamabad