ISLAMABAD - After thorough deliberations, Pakistan on Tuesday announced it will release key Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to help facilitate reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
Officials in the Foreign Office declined to give any timeline for his release, stating that the Taliban leader would be released at an appropriate time. However, some reports quoted Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs, as saying that he would be freed this month.
“He is likely to be released at a time when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session,” sources confirmed.
Baradar’s influence has been debated after years away from the battlefield. “Pakistan has decided in principle to release Mullah Baradar,” Sartaj Aziz told a foreign news agency.
Aziz said Baradar would not be handed over to the government in Afghanistan, but was “likely to be released this month”.
Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry confirmed to the news agency that the decision had been taken to release Baradar “at an appropriate time”.
Sartaj Aziz said it was important to make sure the released Taliban prisoners had a chance to establish contact with their leadership on the ground to persuade them to be part of peace talks - an idea he said Karzai had agreed to.
“Obviously Karzai wanted him to go to Afghanistan, but we feel that if they are to play a positive role in the reconciliation process then they must do it according to what their own Shura (Council), their own leadership, wants them to do,” Aziz said.
“That they can’t do unless they are released. ... I think he (Karzai) accepted this point that they should play a constructive role in the peace process.”
“We monitor their movements and watch where they go,” he said. “We have to allow these released detainees to establish contact with their Shura and then decide where to go.”
He said the Pakistan government was keen to use its contacts with insurgent groups to prepare the ground for peace talks but said it was up to Afghanistan to come up with solutions.
“We have influence on some groups and we use them. But obviously as you know even in the best of times in the past they listened to us only when they wanted to ... They are very independent minded,” he said.
“I think our basic purpose is to persuade them to talk to Afghans. We can’t speak on their behalf. We have no solutions to suggest, formulas to suggest. We just want to bring them together.”
The announcement came two weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Pakistan for talks with new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, at which Baradar’s release was again requested.
A member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, set up to coordinate peace efforts, welcomed the prospective release but called on Pakistan to coordinate his release with them.
“We hope that they work in coordination with Afghanistan’s High Peace Council,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar.
Similarly, President Karzai’s spokesman said Afghanistan welcomed the move but Pakistan should keep a close eye on Baradar’s movement.
“Pakistan’s position is not to release him to Afghanistan and to keep him in Pakistan,” said Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi.
“But our position is that Mullah Baradar must be accessible, secure, with a known address and he must be in the service of the Afghan peace process.”
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told a news agency the militia was assessing the situation. “We hope that his imprisonment is over,” he was quoted as saying.
Pakistan has also released seven Taliban detainees few days ago. They included Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the brother of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a commander who was killed by British forces in Helmand.
This was the third batch of Taliban detainees Pakistan has released in addition to 26 detainees set free in two groups last year.
Born in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, Baradar fought in the war — covertly backed by the United States and Pakistan — to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
When the Taliban rose to power in 1996, Baradar’s friendship with supreme leader Mullah Omar made him deputy defence minister.
After the Taliban government was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001, hundreds of Taliban hardliners are believed to have fled over the border to Pakistan.
Baradar was arrested in the port city of Karachi, reportedly in a secret raid by CIA and Pakistani agents, an operation that was described as a huge blow to the group.
The New York Times — which broke the story of Baradar’s arrest — said the commander was a close associate of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the September 11 attacks.
In early 2010, the Afghan government and the former UN envoy to Afghanistan said his detention had adversely affected efforts to talk to the insurgents.