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Pakistan agrees to free senior Taliban prisoner

Afghan officials hope release can spark peace talks

LONDON — Pakistan is ready to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, an imprisoned senior Taliban commander, in a bid to bolster the faltering peace process in Afghanistan, officials in Islamabad said Tuesday.

The release of Baradar, a former deputy leader of the Taliban who was captured with CIA help in 2010, would meet long-standing demands from American and Afghan officials, who hope he can help draw other Taliban commanders into talks.

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Even as Pakistani officials released several waves of Taliban prisoners over the past year, including a group of seven on Sunday, they resisted setting Baradar free. And on Tuesday, it was unclear when Baradar was to be released and what had led to the government’s shift.

Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, said Afghan officials had been talking closely with Pakistan about Baradar’s release. “His release will certainly help the Afghan peace process,” Faizi said.

But other Afghan officials expressed wariness about the announcement, saying similar promises in the past had not borne out.

caught in 2010

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“Let’s wait a couple more days and see what exactly happens,” said Masoom Stanekzai, the head of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council. Another senior Afghan official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described reports on the release as a joke.

Even if the Pakistanis make good on their promise, other difficult questions surround Baradar, whose fate has become a weather vane of diplomatic relations and intelligence chicanery among the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Some critics wonder whether Baradar’s release would signify an act of genuine good will on the part of Pakistan or rather a cynical attempt to shape the power dispensation in Afghanistan before American combat troops leave by the end of next year.

“This shows blatant intervention of Pakistan in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, which is mainly the result of weak diplomacy by the Afghan government,” said Sayed Agha Fazel Hussain Sancharaki, the spokesman for the National Coalition of Afghanistan political bloc.

Even if Baradar were to become an ambassador for the nascent Afghan peace process, it is unclear how much traction he maintains among his own fighters after years in Pakistani custody.

All of that also presumes that Baradar is ready to give up the fight. Of the 33 Afghan Taliban prisoners who have been set free by Pakistan this year, several are thought to have returned directly to the battlefield.

On Tuesday, Pakistani officials said that despite the stated wishes of the government of Afghanistan, Baradar would not be released directly into Afghan custody; instead, the officials said, he would most likely be freed inside Pakistan.

That would seem to play into Afghan fears that Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, is attempting to insert itself into the peace process to influence the course of Afghan power.

But Faizi, the Afghan presidential spokesman, expressed a cautious acceptance that Baradar might be kept in Pakistan.

“That’s OK, provided that we are sure he is accessible, we have an address for him, and he’s secure and protected,” Faizi said.

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