ISLAMABAD – In a move welcomed by Kabul, which hopes it will encourage peace talks with the insurgents, Pakistan on Saturday released Abdul Ghani Baradar, its most senior Afghan Taliban detainee, a senior official said.
Baradar, a one-time military chief often described as the militants’ former second-in-command, was the most high profile Taliban commander detained in Pakistan.
“Yes, Baradar has been released,” Omar Hamid, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, said, without elaborating on the circumstances of the release.
Afghanistan’s High Peace Council welcomed the release and thanked Pakistan’s government.
“We welcome his release. And we thank the government of Pakistan that showed goodwill and answered positively to the request of Afghanistan government,” Mohammad Esmail Qasimyar, a senior member of the council, said.
“Baradar is someone who has always been eager to join peace negotiations, and we hope he joins peace talks soon. We are optimistic about it, he is still an influential figure, and the Taliban still respect him,” Qasimyar said.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who served as the Taliban’s foreign minister when the group ruled Afghanistan, also hailed Baradar’s release and cautioned Pakistan not to try to control his movements now that he is free.
“They also have to allow him contact with Taliban leaders and for him to be useful for peace in Afghanistan,” Muttawakil said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Friday said that Baradar’s release will facilitate Afghanistan’s reconciliation process with the Taliban as a NATO combat mission there winds down.
However, the Taliban’s spokesman in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid, said they could not yet confirm the move.
“We only heard through the media that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be released. We have not received any official confirmation about his release,” Mujahid said in Kabul.
The Afghan government has long demanded that Islamabad free Baradar, whose arrest in January 2010 saw Pakistan accused of sabotaging initiatives to bring peace in war-torn Afghanistan.
He was arrested in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, reportedly in a secret raid by CIA and Pakistani agents, in an operation that was described as a huge blow to the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
At the time of his detention Baradar was reported to have been the Taliban’s second-in-command, the right-hand man of supreme commander Mullah Omar.
He was the most senior member of the Taliban held after U.S.-led troops invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, bringing down the Islamist regime.
His release brings to 34 the number of Taliban detainees that Pakistan has freed since last year, in what Afghan officials hope will encourage peace talks with Taliban insurgents.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai had asked Pakistan to help open direct dialogue between his government and the Taliban, who consider Karzai an “American puppet” and have refused to hold discussions with his government.
But Sartaj Aziz, the main adviser on national security and foreign affairs to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had said that Baradar would not be handed over to Kabul, and analysts agree his release will have little impact on talks.
Political analyst Talat Masood said the announcement was a “sort of a confidence-building measure between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
“However, this release is not likely to make any significant difference in the negotiating process,” he said.
Pakistan is a key player in Afghan peace talks because of its historical ties to the Taliban. Islamabad helped the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan in 1996 and is widely believed to have maintained ties with the group, despite official denials.
But there is also significant distrust between the two, and Pakistan has arrested dozens of Taliban militants in the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — possibly to hold as bargaining chips.
Pakistan has increasingly pushed for a peace settlement because it is worried that chaos in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014 could make it more difficult to fight its own domestic Taliban militants. It could also send a flood of new refugees into Pakistan.
The most recent attempt to push forward peace negotiations foundered in June in the Qatari capital of Doha. Karzai pulled the plug on the talks even before they began because he was angered that the group marked the opening of its Doha political office with the flag, anthem and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the group’s name when they ruled the country.