ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s security forces released a top-ranking Taliban prisoner Saturday in an effort to expedite the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was arrested in 2010 during a raid by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence services, was freed shortly before noon under orders from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif was responding to a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Pakistan help foster talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban before the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces next year.
The two leaders met in Islamabad in late August, and Karzai reportedly asked that Baradar be freed.
Baradar was considered the second-ranking Taliban leader when he was captured in the secret operation, designed by U.S. officials to gather intelligence about the Taliban network. He is believed to have played a key role in organizing resistance after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but is regarded as a moderate within the organization who had signaled a willingness to engage in peace talks before his arrest.
Baradar “is now a free man,” a Pakistani security official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. “Baradar is a senior Taliban leader, and it is hoped his release would have a positive impact on Afghanistan’s reconciliation process.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the release in a statement later in the day. Officials declined to say where Baradar was headed, but a Pakistani intelligence official said he expects Baradar will stay in Pakistan for now.
Under U.N. sanctions against the Taliban, the group’s leaders are not free to cross international borders.
Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said that the key is not whether Baradar is delivered to Afghan security forces but that he is “safe, secure and accessible with a reachable address so that the Afghan High Peace Council can reach out to him.”
Mavlawi Shadid, a spokesman for the peace council, called the release a “goodwill gesture,” but some committee members expressed doubt the move would be a constructive step, given that Baradar was not handed over to Afghan authorities.
“The future will answer this question,” said Ismail Qasim Yar, a senior member of the council. “In the past, Baradar was interested in negotiations and peace talks with the Afghan government. We hope he will follow those ambitions now that he has been released.”
Even if Baradar does try to take an active role, analysts say it’s unclear whether he still has enough support within the Taliban to be a major factor in potential negotiations. They say any eventual peace deal probably will require the support of Taliban’s supreme leader, Mohammad Omar, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
“It may not be the magic bullet, but it’s a hope,” said Rifaatt S. Hussain, a professor and defense analyst in Islamabad, said of Baradar’s release. “It’s another attempt to gather the moderate Taliban who can be part of the process, but I am not sure how much influence he has.”
The Obama administration has also been eager for Afghanistan to explore a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to try bring stability to the country as U.S. forces depart.
With help from Pakistan’s government, the White House tried to arrange tentative talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban in Qatar this summer. But the talks never took place because of a dispute over whether the Taliban should be able to fly its flag over its temporary offices in Doha.
By releasing Baradar, analysts said, Sharif is signaling that he hopes to continue working with the United States on regional security while also helping repair Pakistan’s rocky relationship with Afghanistan.
Karzai often blames Pakistan for Afghanistan’s security challenges, arguing that Pakistan’s army has not done enough to keep militants from crossing the border.
Tension also flared last week when Pakistan’s foreign ministry accused Afghan security forces of crossing the border and killing five Pakistani soldiers.
Sieff reported from Kabul. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Mohammad Sharif in Kabul contributed to this report.