Pakistan said it will release more members of Afghanistan’s Taliban movement in a bid to help the U.S. and Afghan governments start meaningful negotiations with insurgents to end a decade-old conflict.
The plan was announced by Pakistan’s Foreign Office after Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul visited the capital, Islamabad, Nov. 30 and met with Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. Pakistan last month freed nine Taliban prisoners, according to the Associated Press, a move that the U.S. and Afghanistan welcomed as a positive first step and an indication that Pakistan supports the stalled Afghan peace process.
Pakistan agreed to “release more prisoners, facilitating contacts and urging the Taliban to renounce ties to al-Qaeda,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have long sought Pakistan’s help in facilitating talks with the Taliban, whose leadership they allege is hiding in and around the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta in Baluchistan, a province that borders Afghanistan. Pakistan denies charges that its military protects senior insurgent commanders in a bid to maintain influence over Afghanistan’s future and oppose India’s growing role there.
Rustam Shah Mohmand, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul between 2002 and 2005, said the release of mid-level Taliban members is unlikely on its own to persuade the movement’s leadership to begin substantial negotiations.
“As soon as they were detained, the Taliban renounced any links with them, saying that they do not belong to the movement,” he said by phone from Peshawar. “There has been a consistent stand of the Taliban that as long as coalition forces remain on the soil of Afghanistan, no negotiations will be held.”
The statement didn’t say when Pakistan will release the Taliban prisoners or who will be among them. Pakistan arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar, a lieutenant of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in 2010 after he had held discussions with mediators from the United Nations, the world body’s former envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told the British Broadcasting Corp.
The push for talks has become more urgent as the U.S.-led international coalition prepares to pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Efforts to discuss peace with the Taliban, which includes distinct factions, received a setback when Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan’s top official for talks with the militants, was killed in a suicide bombing last year. Rabbani’s son, Salahuddin, now heads efforts to hold talks.
Pakistan and Afghanistan also agreed last month to work together to remove the names of potential negotiators among the Taliban and other groups from a UN sanctions list to enable them to participate in peace talks.
“All concerned countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and U.S. will facilitate safe passage to potential negotiators to advance the reconciliation process,” a delegation of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a body set up to negotiate with the insurgent group, said in a statement issued after it met top Pakistani officials in Islamabad last month.