With its long-standing links to Afghan Taliban insurgents, Pakistan has a vital role in nudging them to the table as the United States winds down its involvement in the 11-year war in Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s handling of the prisoner release once again subverted the trust of the Afghans, who were supposed to receive the captives and keep tabs on them to lower the risk of any returning to terrorist havens in Pakistan.
The whereabouts and even the number of ex-prisoners have remained murky since their release in two batches in mid-November and late December by Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as part of a road map drawn up by the Afghan High Peace Council to build the militants’ confidence.
Despite an earlier agreement, the ISI failed to consult with the council when it set many of the captives free. On Friday, however, the Pakistani government pledged to coordinate future Taliban releases with the council, in a belated admission that it had blindsided the Afghans.
The U.S. military is keenly interested in the former captives’ whereabouts and is trying to track down any who have returned to the Taliban in Afghanistan — and wants to identify those participating in the reconciliation process so they won’t be targeted.
‘Back to their old ways’
“It’s all a black hole,” one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A Pakistani security official confirmed that 18 men were freed and described them as junior to mid-level members of the Islamic movement, including field commanders and foot soldiers.
“Some have gone back to their old ways, with their old friends,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The original deal, presented in Islamabad by peace council head Salahuddin Rabbani and backed by Washington, envisioned the prisoners being handed over to Afghanistan or a third country. Instead, most of the released Taliban members rejoined their families in Pakistan, in cities including Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi, to recover from years in detention, according to residents and a Taliban spokesman.
The most senior of the captives, Noruddin Toorabi, the ailing former justice minister in the Taliban government, has promoted himself as a spokesman for the collective prisoners. But, like others set free, he will have to be anointed by Taliban chief Mohammad Omar to be allowed a role in any prospective peace talks.
The ISI spurned a specific request by Rabbani to free the most important prisoner: Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader under Omar taken captive in 2010.