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Afghan negotiator welcomes release of Taliban prisoners

Move by Pakistan seen as boosting peace process

Afghan President Hamid Karzai departs next week for Washington, where he will meet with President Obama.

AHMAD JAMSHID/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Afghan President Hamid Karzai departs next week for Washington, where he will meet with President Obama.

KABUL — A top Afghan negotiator said Tuesday that he hopes eight Taliban members freed by Pakistan will serve as peace mediators, describing Islamabad’s move as a major step forward for Kabul’s effort to enlist its neighbor’s help in negotiating an end to its 11-year war.

The eight released Monday include the Taliban’s justice minister when the militants ruled Afghanistan before their 2001 overthrow, as well as a onetime guard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. It was the second group of prisoners released by Pakistan.

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Although both sides describe the deal as a step toward peace, much about the release remains unclear. Kabul has lobbied hard for Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners, but simultaneously presses Islamabad to crack down on militants in its territory. It has not said what, if anything, this particular group might bring to the table.

Islamabad for its part has never said why it arrested the eight in the first place. Neither side has said where this batch of freed prisoners and a previous group of 18 released in November have gone, nor what they will be doing. Another 100 prisoners are believed to remain in Pakistani custody.

In Kabul, the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai said the Afghan leader would discuss the peace negotiations with President Obama. Karzai departs for Washington early next week.

Karzai will also bring up the ongoing handover of security from NATO to Afghan forces, training and equipment of the forces, and the shape of a US-Afghan agreement after Washington withdraws most of its troops, spokesman Aimal Faizi told a news conference. NATO plans to hand security responsibility over to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

The spokesman welcomed the prisoner release, but gave no details.

Ismail Qasemyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, called the release a positive step in the peace process and hoped more would follow. It was not known whether the eight actually favored negotiations, but Qasemyar said it was hoped they would act as intermediaries between the Taliban leadership and the Kabul government.

‘‘This is a big victory from our trip to Pakistan for peace negotiations. This is a good, practical step toward peace from Pakistan,’’ said Qasemyar, the council’s international affairs adviser and a key member of a delegation that travelled to Pakistan in November.

Pakistan is seen as key in ending the conflict. Kabul hopes the Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table before the 2014 foreign troop withdrawal.

But Pakistan’s role is mixed. While Pakistan has arrested Afghan Taliban members, usually under pressure from Washington, its powerful military intelligence service has also afforded sanctuary and support for the militants.

Recently, Pakistan appears to have an interest in promoting a negotiated solution to the war across the border, as a post-2014 upheaval could bring harsh consequences, including another surge of refugees into the country.

Pakistan has longstanding ties to the Taliban, in part for geopolitical reasons. It fears that not having some control of who is or might one day be in power in Afghanistan could leave a vacuum which its archenemy, India, could fill.

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