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Freed Taliban back as insurgents, Pakistani official says

ISLAMABAD — At least half the Afghan Taliban recently freed from Pakistani prisons have rejoined the insurgency, a Pakistani intelligence official says, throwing into question the value of such goodwill gestures that the Afghan government requested to restart a flagging peace process.

A senior Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could talk freely confirmed that ‘‘some’’ newly freed Taliban have returned to the battlefield.

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The development underscores the difficulties in reaching a political deal with the Taliban before the end of 2014, when NATO and US troops are scheduled to have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many Taliban released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay have also gone underground.

Despite some recent signs from the Taliban that they are willing to share power and want to avoid a civil war, the militants may well be playing for time until 2014. That’s also when the Afghans are scheduled to elect a new president to succeed Hamid Karzai, whom the insurgents consider an American puppet.

The Taliban have long refused to speak directly with Karzai or his government. They have said they will negotiate only with the United States, which has held secret talks with them in the Gulf state of Qatar. But at Karzai’s insistence, the United States has since sought to have the insurgents speak directly with the Afghan government. Western officials privately say that the talks have so far gone no further.

At the request of the Afghan High Peace Council late last year, Pakistan freed 24 prisoners to coax a reluctant Taliban leadership to talk peace directly with Karzai’s government, according to Ismail Qasemyar, a senior peace council official.

The freed prisoners are all Afghan Taliban, who are battling NATO and US troops in Afghanistan. Many of these fighters use neighboring Pakistan as a home base, particularly in winter months.

The release of the prisoners appears to have backfired, however, with the intelligence official saying about half of them have returned to the Taliban. The outcome is further testing an already troubled relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and drawing US complaints that Pakistan has not done enough to keep track of the freed Taliban.

Frustrated by the criticism, Islamabad said it doesn’t have the resources to track the prisoners and that no request was made to follow the freed Taliban or to hand them over to the Afghan government. Afghan authorities have also released Taliban prisoners from their own jails, occasionally over the objections of the US military, and have since lost track of many of them.

When Pakistan has arrested Afghan Taliban fighters in recent years, it has often come in response to pressure from the United States or with American assistance. The Pakistani military is far more interested in carrying out offensives against Pakistani Taliban, who have declared war on the state of Pakistan and are responsible for tens of thousands of Pakistani deaths as well as the deaths of about 4,000 Pakistani soldiers.

But among the Afghan Taliban prisoners that Pakistan recently released at the request of the Afghan government were several it would have preferred to keep in jail, the Pakistani intelligence official said Monday.

Pakistan, for example, wanted to keep Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed in prison, said Pakistan and Afghan officials. Mujahed was an insurgent commander responsible for most of the more spectacular attacks against US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. But the High Peace Council insisted he be freed.

One peace council member said Mujahed’s release was demanded by Hajji Din Mohammed, former provincial governor and a peace council member. Mohammed’s links to Mujahed date to the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when he served as a senior lieutenant in the US-financed Hezb-e-Islami Khalis group run by Mujahed’s father, Younus Khalis.

Mohammed delayed the Afghan Peace Council’s Nov. 14 departure from Pakistan until Mujahed was released. At the time the United States also objected to his release, said a senior American official who spoke on condition of anonymity. On Dec. 1, two weeks after he was freed, a coordinated Taliban assault took place on a US base in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. There was no claim of responsibility from Mujahed.

In a series of interviews in the Afghan capital, members of the High Peace Council as well as Karzai’s government confirmed Pakistan’s reluctance to release some prisoners including Mujahed. They also said the releases were unconditional.

‘‘It was a risk we felt was worth taking,’’ said Amin Arsala, a senior adviser to Karzai.

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