ISLAMABAD — Pakistan freed the Afghan Taliban’s former deputy leader on Saturday after years of detention in a move that many officials in Islamabad and Kabul hope will aid Afghanistan’s struggling peace process.
But others doubt Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will do much good, and the United States, which opposed his release, is worried he could return to the battlefield. That could give the Taliban in Afghanistan a boost at a time when the U.S. is drawing down its troops and increasingly relying on Afghan forces to fight insurgents.
Kabul has demanded Islamabad free Baradar since he was arrested in a joint raid in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010 after holding secret peace talks with the Afghan government. Pakistan resisted for years, exacerbating already tense relations with neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s change of heart came amid a renewed push to help strike a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government before the U.S. withdraws most of its combat troops by 2014. Pakistan is increasingly worried that further instability in Afghanistan could make it more difficult to fight Islamic militants at home.
Baradar was released Saturday morning, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry without providing further details, including where the prisoner was held.
Baradar will remain in Pakistan after his release and will be provided with tight security, said Pakistani intelligence and security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
He will be free to meet with anyone he chooses, they said. Presumably that could include talks with Taliban commanders and Afghan officials to aid the peace effort.
Baradar’s family, which lives in Karachi, had not heard from him by Saturday evening, said a family friend, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not have the family’s permission to talk to the media.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman welcomed Baradar’s release and urged Pakistan to ensure that he is accessible to the High Peace Council, which has been tasked by the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban.
“We want Mullah Baradar to be safe and accessible with reachable address, so he can contribute to the Afghan peace process,” spokesman Aimal Faizi said in a statement.
Baradar, who is around 50 years old, was one of the founding members of the Taliban along with the group’s leader Mullah Omar. He served as a senior military leader and deputy defense minister after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, who served as foreign minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, also hailed Bardar’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 told The Associated Press.
Not everyone agreed that Baradar’s release would contribute to peace, saying his long imprisonment had robbed him of both his influence and position in the Taliban.
“This is a very, very meager step. It will not bring peace,” said Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, an Afghan political commentator and talk show host. “He doesn’t have an importance among the Taliban leadership, or any other leadership that would be able to deliver anything with authority.”
Pakistan has released at least 33 Taliban prisoners over the last year at the Afghan government’s request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations between the insurgents and Kabul. But there is no sign that the previous releases have helped peace talks, and some of the prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government.
The releases ended up causing friction with Kabul – and Washington – which were both frustrated that Pakistan was not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of the former inmates. Pakistani officials have said they felt slighted by the criticism because there was no request to keep tabs on the prisoners.
The U.S. asked Pakistan to keep Baradar under house arrest rather than set him free, said senior Pakistani and American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistan refused the request, saying it would infuriate both the Afghan government and the Taliban, said the American official. The U.S. believes Baradar is one of the smartest members of the Taliban and is worried he could give the group a strategic leg-up in its battle against Afghan security forces if he rejoins the insurgency, the official said.
“Obviously, it’s important that coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan takes place to ensure that any releases are done in a responsible manner,” U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington on Friday before Baradar was freed.
The circumstances surrounding Baradar’s arrest in Karachi were murky. Afghan officials said at the time that he was holding secret peace talks with Karzai and accused Pakistan of arresting him to sabotage or gain control of the process. Both Baradar and Karzai are from the same tribe.
But American officials said the CIA was the driving force behind the arrest and Pakistani security forces who participated in the raid did not know they were detaining Baradar.
Pakistan is a key player in Afghan peace talks because of its historical ties to the Afghan Taliban, which Islamabad is widely believed to have maintained, 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.
Pakistan has increasingly pushed for a peace settlement because it is worried chaos in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops could make it more difficult to fight its own domestic Taliban militants. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused their fight on opposite sides of the border.
The most recent attempt to push forward peace negotiations foundered in June in the Qatari capital of Doha. The Afghan president 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, and symbols of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the group’s name when they ruled the country.
Another major hurdle to restarting talks is Washington’s reluctance to release five senior Taliban commanders being held at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, according to the American official.