A dozen Afghan Taliban prisoners freed

KABUL — Many of at least a dozen Afghan Taliban prisoners being released by Pakistan are significant figures, according to officials on all sides, and ­Afghan peace representatives were exultant Saturday as they announced that more releases might follow.

The releases are expected to help bolster the efforts of the High Peace Council, the Afghan government’s negotiating body, to start talks with the insurgents. Prisoner releases have been a core demand of the council, and Pakistan’s move was seen as a good-faith effort to advance the moribund peace process.

Previously, the council had been rejected as insignificant by the Taliban and dismissed as impotent by Western diplomats. Pakistan agreed to the prisoner releases, the most significant it has yet made, on Thursday after a visit by the council to Islamabad.


The insurgents were quick to praise the releases. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, reached by telephone, said that there were ‘‘important’’ prisoners among those being freed, and that the insurgents had confirmed that some had ­already reached home.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Richard Hoagland, a deputy US ambassador to Pakistan, praised the move as well, and said the United States would help Afghanistan and Pakistan provide safe passage home for the freed prisoners.

‘‘We have said from the beginning that it is very important for Afghanistan to lead and to own the reconciliation process,’’ Hoagland said. ‘‘And there is going to be a role for very important players like Pakistan, too, so it’s a very good step and we are pleased.’’

Nine men have been released so far, the head of the High Peace Council, Salahuddin Rabbani, said Saturday at a news conference here, adding that the release of additional prisoners is expected. Rabbani took over the council after the assassination of his father, Burhanuddin, in 2011 by a Taliban emissary with a bomb hidden in his turban.

The names of 11 of the 12 being freed were provided by Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban military commander in Wardak Province who is among a small group of reconciled Taliban figures who now live in Kabul, who said he got them from Taliban sources. Several of the more prominent names were confirmed by ­Mujahid as well as by Afghan officials.


Those on the list include Maulavi Jahangirwal, a secretary to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar; Nooruddin Turabi, the former justice minister for the Taliban; Maulavi Allah Dad, the former communications minister; Saad Udin Agha, an aide to Mullah Omar; Matiullah, who was in charge of logistics in the Taliban defense ministry and goes by only one name; Mullah Muhammad, the military commander of Baghlan Province; and Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid, the son of a famous Taliban military commander, Yunis Khalis, who also fought against the ­Soviets in the 1980s and was invited to the White House by President Reagan.

‘‘Some of them are junior people who I don’t know very well, but some are important figures such as Mullah Turabi,’’ said the Taliban spokesman, Mujahid.

He declined to say whether the releases would affect the Taliban’s refusal to consider the High Peace Council as a negotiating partner. But he insisted that the credit should go to Pakistan. ‘‘The Pakistani government saw that these people were innocent and decided to release them, which I appreciate,’’ he said.

Rabbani would not confirm the names, saying only that they included ‘‘Afghan citizens who expressed their willingness to work for peace.’’

The prisoners, he said, were being given their freedom ­either in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Most are expected to remain in Pakistan, where their families live in exile. Pakistan has long given Afghan Taliban leaders sanctuary in its territory, even as it arrested some of the insurgents.


Agha said Saturday that among the prisoners expected to be released soon are Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s former military commander, whose arrest by Pakistani and US operatives in 2010 was seen as the reason for a breakdown in an earlier attempt at peace talks, and ­Anwar ul-Haq, the military commander for Jalalabad and head of Taliban operations in Tora Bora, which was the last hiding place of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Pakistan agreedto the prisoner releases, the most significant it has yet made, after a visit to Islamabad by the High Peace Council.

Pakistani officials have said Baradar’s name is not on the list of those to be released; ­Rabbani would not comment.

Jawed Kohistani, a political analyst and former intelligence official in Pakistan, said the releases were highly significant.

“This will help get the Taliban to the negotiating table,’’ he said. Most if not all of those released had been imprisoned by Pakistan for defying that country’s orders, including to engage in such talks, he said.

A US attempt to start direct talks with the Taliban, who have insisted that they will not negotiate with what they call the ‘‘puppet’’ Afghan government, collapsed last March.