Pakistan to free ‘ex-Taliban No. 2′

Afghanistan hopes long demanded move mollifies insurgents

AFP-JIJI

Pakistan is to release its most senior Afghan Taliban detainee, Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former military chief often described as the insurgents’ ex-second in command, officials said.

The Afghan government has long demanded that Islamabad free Baradar, whose arrest in January 2010 saw Pakistan accused of sabotaging initiatives to bring peace to war-torn Afghanistan, the officials said Tuesday.

Baradar’s release would bring to 34 the number of Taliban detainees that Pakistan has released since last year, in what Afghan officials hope will encourage peace talks with the insurgents. There has been little evidence, however, that the releases have had a positive effect on the stalled negotiations, and Baradar’s influence is debatable after years away from the battlefield.

Sartaj Aziz, an advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, said Baradar would not be handed over to Afghanistan but was “likely to be released this month.” Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry confirmed that the decision had been taken to release Baradar “at an appropriate time.”

The announcement came two weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Pakistan for talks with the newly appointed 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 potential release with caveats. “We hope that they work in coordination with Afghanistan’s High Peace Council,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar.

At the end of August, Karzai asked Pakistan to help open direct dialogue between his government and the Taliban. He was infuriated by the opening in June of a Taliban office in Qatar, considered a precursor to talks with U.S. officials.

Elements of the Pakistani state are widely accused of funding, controlling and sheltering the Taliban. Islamabad says publicly it will do anything to stop the fighting in Afghanistan, but analysts doubt it has the influence to force the insurgents to the negotiating table. The Taliban has publicly refused all contact with Karzai’s government.

Afghan officials believe prisoner releases can encourage former detainees to talk to Kabul, although several prisoners are understood to have returned to the battlefield.

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 leader Mullah Omar made him deputy defense minister.

After the Taliban government was toppled by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, hundreds of Taliban hard-liners are believed to have fled over the border to Pakistan.

Although little is known about Baradar’s more recent activity, Interpol said he had been a member of the Taliban’s so-called Quetta Shura leadership since May 2007.

He was arrested in Pakistan’s southern 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. At the time, Baradar was reported to have been second or third in command of the Quetta Shura leadership.

The New York Times, which broke the story of Baradar’s arrest, said he was a close associate of the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In early 2010, the Afghan government and the former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan claimed that Baradar’s detention had adversely affected efforts to talk to the insurgents.