What Pakistan’s Release of the Afghan Taliban’s No. 2 Means for Peace

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Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Islamabad on Sept. 10, 2013

Pakistan has said it will release the Afghan Taliban’s former deputy from its custody as the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to repair frayed ties with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai.

Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s top adviser on foreign affairs, said Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar could be freed from detention within a month’s time. “In principle we have agreed to release him,” Aziz told Reuters. “The timing is being discussed.” The announcement comes on the heels of the release last week of seven other members of the Afghan Taliban from custody. During a recent visit to Islamabad by Karzai, the Afghan leader called on Sharif’s government to help “facilitate” talks with the Afghan Taliban by releasing more prisoners.

Since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership crossed the border and sought sanctuary in Pakistan, the country that first helped it rise to power. Some of the leaders were arrested by Pakistani authorities — sometimes with U.S. assistance — while others are still in hiding. Karzai has long accused the Pakistanis of backing the Taliban in the decade-long war against the U.S. and its allies. But now that the war is drawing to a close, Karzai is asking the Pakistanis to exert their influence over the insurgent leaders and push them to the negotiating table for a postwar political settlement.

The release of prisoners is one of four demands that Karzai has made of his Pakistani counterparts. The other three demands include facilitating direct contact with the Afghan Taliban, offering “safe passage” to anyone who wants to be part of the dialogue process, and setting up a conference of Islamic clerics from both sides. As far as Karzai is concerned, Pakistan is not keeping its end of the bargain.

Baradar’s release will only moderately ease tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. Pakistan has long jealously guarded its influence over Afghan insurgents in its custody and those who have taken sanctuary on its soil. Beginning late last year, it has only released prisoners in a trickle. And none of the prisoners released so far have been transferred into Afghan custody, apparently because Pakistan wants to maintain its sway over them, much to Karzai’s chagrin.

Baradar was arrested in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2010 during a joint operation by Pakistani and American security forces. Initially, Pakistan kept its new prisoner under close guard, but eventually allowed U.S. officials access.

Karzai had been unimpressed with the release of junior Afghan detainees until now. The Afghan President had wanted to see more senior leaders, including Baradar, released. Baradar, who is in his 40s and was one of the founders of the Afghan Taliban, is a member of the same Popalzai subtribe of the Pashtun Durrani clan that Karzai belongs to. His release could yield Karzai a much coveted opening with the Afghan Taliban leadership.

On his visit to Islamabad, says analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi, Karzai “wanted, among others, Mullah Baradar released. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will facilitate the dialogue.” Aziz, the Pakistan foreign-ministry chief, said Baradar would not be handed over to Afghan custody. This will infuriate Karzai, but it may encourage the Afghan Taliban to take steps toward opening a dialogue with the Kabul government.

Askari-Rizvi says Baradar is expected to move “underground” after his release and seek sanctuary among other Afghan insurgents based in Pakistan’s tribal areas. From there, Pakistan hopes the Afghan Taliban leadership will coalesce into a leadership council that will lead talks on behalf of the insurgents.

When Karzai visited Islamabad, Prime Minister Sharif tried to assuage the Afghan President’s concerns about the attempt to set up a Taliban mission in Doha. Karzai was infuriated by the sight of the Afghan Taliban representatives based in the Qatari capital announcing their presence with the hoisting of their own flag and declaring it to belong to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Sharif told Karzai that Pakistan would help move the Taliban office out of Qatar, which Afghans say is too close to the Taliban, to a neutral capital that may be acceptable to all parties. The suggestions floated have included Istanbul and Riyadh. That may moderate tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they are not likely to fade anytime soon.