As a remarkable sign of Pakistan’s new phase of cooperation with the Afghan peace process, Islamabad is to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a prominent Taliban leader who was in prison in Pakistan since he was captured in 2010. The Afghan government has long urged for release of Baradar as he is considered a moderate and pro-peace figure among the Taliban leadership. At the time, Mullah Baradar was considered as the right-hand man to Mullah Omar and the second-in-command in the group.
A top Pakistani official on Tuesday confirmed the decision to release Mullah Baradar after reports suggested that Islamabad was considering moving Mullah Baradar to Saudi Arabia or Turkey in order to help kick-start the stalled Afghan peace process resumed. Sartaj Aziz, an advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister, said the release would happen “within a month”, despite that there was no clear timing for it. On Saturday, Pakistan announced release of seven Taliban members, including a prominent military commander of the militant group.
The decision to release Taliban prominent leader is coming after a recent Karzai’s visit to Islamabad, where he urged Pakistani leaders to help with the peace negotiations with the Afghan insurgent groups. Release of more Taliban prisoners and the decision to transfer Mullah Baradar to another country would be signs of a genuine cooperation from Islamabad to help resumption of the Afghan peace efforts. During Karzai’s visit to Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged his full support to the Afghan-led peace process, saying that the country would sincerely support the Afghan peace process. Pakistani officials say that the country would take all steps it deems necessary to help the peace process in Afghanistan.
It was always important for Kabul whether who are being released and what role the released militants could play to help peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership. The government of Afghanistan responded unenthusiastically to the release of Taliban members announced on Saturday. In the list, only Mansoor Dadullah had been a top figure of the Taliban at the time, serving as a military commander of the group in the most in the most insurgency-hit provinces of the south before 2008. Comparing to other Taliban officials released so far, Mullah Baradar is considered as an influential leader of the Taliban, who is believed to have a key role in the opening of the Taliban political office in Qatar.
The decision to release or transfer of Mullah Baradar to another country must has been a much-calculated decision for Pakistan, since he was making secret contacts with the Afghan government before his detention without Pakistan’s consent. Ostensibly, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Washington have been engaged in secret talks to reach a deal on the fate of Mullah Baradar, in a way to satisfy Pakistan that his release won’t endanger Pakistan’s interests. The question that is remaining unanswered is that will there be any kinds of constraints on Mullah Baradar, when he will be released or moved to another country. Given Pakistan’s sensitivity to Baradar’s release, it is possible that he might be put under surveillance or some sorts of constraints when released from prison.
It should also be noted that despite the Afghan government’s high account of Mullah Baradar and his presumed role in the future talks with the Taliban, he might not retain a high level of influence over the Taliban leadership that could bring the Taliban leaders to negotiation table. Mullah Baradar has been behind the bars for many years and it is logical to say that he has lost much of influence over the Taliban leadership particularly. There has been long battle of influence among the so-called moderate leaders of the Taliban with those considered as highly influential hardliners. However, release or transfer of Mullah Baradar to another country hosting the Taliban office would certainly strengthen position of the moderates inside the Taliban leadership.
Another concern about the releases of Taliban leaders is that they may return to the battlefield fighting against Afghan and foreign forces. The Taliban members who were freed previously have ended up in the battlefield against Afghan and foreign forces or remained unaccounted for. This is a core concern for the US and somehow shared by the Afghan government. And Pakistan, for its part, is not willing to release Mullah Baradar without keeping an eye on him and an assurance from the US and Afghanistan that his release won’t harm Pakistan’s interests. These concerns is exactly the thing that helps Kabul, Islamabad and Washington to find a way for release of the Taliban prisoners in a way to allow keeping an eye over them after being released from Pakistani prisons.
There are also talks of relocation of Taliban office from Qatar to another country, possibly Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Any plan for relocation of the Taliban will put the Afghan government in a higher position as Afghanistan would have a direct role in the initiative, and the fact that the Qatar office was closed due the strong observations of the Afghan government. Qatar was opened amid high levels of distrusts from the Afghan government to the roles of Pakistan and the United States. If the new venue for peace talks with the Taliban opens in Turkey or Saudi Arabia, it would be carried out with consent and sufficient presence of the government of Afghanistan in the process. This is something that the Afghan government has been trying to achieve and agree on with Pakistan and the US for years. And most possibly, any relocation of Taliban office to another country would be a result of joint efforts by Pakistan and the Afghan government to resume the peace process.
The latest moves by Pakistan in announcing release of Mullah Baradar and seven other Taliban members will mark a historic move and a good-will gesture by Pakistan to support the Afghan peace process. And the possible relocation of Taliban office to a third Muslim country would be the beginning of a full-scale engagement and support of Islamabad in the Afghan-led efforts for peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The writer is a regular contributor to Daily Outlook Afghanistan