ISLAMABAD/KABUL - Pakistan on Wednesday denied claim by the Afghan Taliban that their second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has not been freed despite official announcements about his release.
Pakistan announced on Sept 21 that Mullah Baradar was released to help in the peace process. Baradar was arrested in Karachi in February 2010.
However Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that Mullah Baradar has not been freed and the Taliban, his family and sympathizers are concerned about his deteriorated health condition.“With great regret, he (Mullah Baradar) is still spending days and nights locked up behind bars in worrisome health conditions which are deteriorating by the day,” the Taliban said.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry rejected the Taliban claim and insisted that Baradar has been freed. “Pakistan has released Taliban detainees to facilitate the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar has been similarly freed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry said.
“As far as we are concerned, he (Baradar) is free to meet and contact anyone to advance the cause of reconciliation,” the spokesman said in a text message to the media.
A senior Taliban member told AFP that Baradar was being held at a house in Karachi run by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “He doesn’t have any freedom, and his family can’t even visit him,” he said. “The Pakistan government says he has health problems which are being treated, and then his family will be able to visit.”
A separate Taliban source alleged that the ISI was trying to “soften up” Baradar so that he would play a role in the Afghan peace process that may benefit Pakistan.
A security source in Pakistan confirmed Baradar’s house arrest, which will set back efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan as NATO troops withdraw by the end of next year. “He is in protective custody in an ISI house in Karachi, he cannot meet anybody or move anywhere on his own, he needs permission of security officials,” the source said.“He has the freedom of having the food of his own choice, but he is restricted to the safe house.”
Baradar is seen by many in Afghanistan as the key to restarting peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan announced that the former commander had been released in mid-September, but since then has provided no further information on his whereabouts.
Reports indicate he has since been moved between safe houses in Peshawar, near the Afghan border. The city has seen a surge of militant violence in recent weeks.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this week Baradar’s freedom was still restricted and he called on Pakistan to cooperate by helping them get in touch with the former commander.
“We are trying to find a contact number or his address to talk to him,” Karzai told journalists. “Although I have thanked Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for delivering on his promise, I hope that further steps are taken that will prove fruitful for the peace process.”
The Taliban also confirmed suspicion that Pakistan had never really released their former second-in-command, refusing to meet him on the grounds that Baradar was still being minded by security agents.
Proponents of peace in Afghanistan see Baradar as the best chance of ending the Taliban-led insurgency because he once reached out to Kabul to negotiate a settlement.
It remains to be seen whether Baradar, who was captured in Pakistan in 2010, can really still influence the Taliban leadership after spending years in jail.
That said, he was once a close friend of the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and is still widely respected by field commanders.
Pakistan supported the Taliban in the 1990s when the Islamists emerged from the chaos of years of foreign occupation and war to take over most of Afghanistan.
Now Pakistan wants to limit the influence of its old rival, India, in Afghanistan and is keen to have a say in any peace process to further that aim.
Tentative efforts to get peace talks going with the Taliban over the past year or so have come to nothing.