Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs. -Reuters Photo
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will release former Afghan Taliban second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as soon as this month to help advance peace efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign policy chief said on Tuesday.
Baradar is one of the four men who founded the Taliban movement in 1994, and is believed to be a close aide and one of the most trusted commanders of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban. He was captured from the port city of Karachi in February, 2010.
Afghanistan has been pushing Pakistan to release former Baradar, whose release they believe would prove fruitful in negotiations with Taliban militants prior to the withdrawal of US and Nato forces from the war-torn nation.
“In principle, we have agreed to release him. The timing is being discussed. It should be very soon ... I think within this month,” Sartaj Aziz, advisor on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told news agency Reuters.
Aziz added Baradar would not be handed over to Afghanistan directly as some in Kabul had hoped, and would be instead released straight into Pakistan.
A member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, set up to coordinate peace efforts, welcomed the prospective release but called on Pakistan to coordinate his release with them.
“We hope that they work in coordination with Afghanistan's High Peace Council,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar.
Karzai at the end of August asked Pakistan to help open direct dialogue between his government and the Taliban. He was infuriated by the opening in June of a Taliban office in Qatar, considered a precursor towards talks with US officials.
During his visit to Pakistan last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reiterated his demand for release of Mullah Baradar who was captured in February 2010 in a joint ISI-CIA operation.
Karzai's office said it would respond later to Baradar's prospective release, and Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP the militia was assessing the situation.
The announcement of Baradar's prospective release comes days after the release of seven Taliban prisoners by Pakistan, including Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, brother of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a brutal commander killed by British forces in Helmand.
This was the third batch of Taliban detainees to be released by Islamabad. Twenty-six prisoners were set free in two groups last year.
“Pakistan has become more supportive of reconciliation process and has encouraged the Taliban to engage with the US and ultimately with Afghanistan,” said US special envoy James Dobbins.
Mr Dobbins, Washington’s special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, welcomed Islamabad’s expected move to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to help the peace process.
Pakistan said it had freed the militants ‘to facilitate’ the troubled Afghan reconciliation process.
However, news of release of Taliban fighters last week was coldly received in Kabul where authorities downplayed it as a ‘minor step’, saying it was important to release the main person — Mullah Baradar.
Sceptical authorities had always been reluctant to release Mullah Baradar, a top confidante and a close relative of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But with the endgame in Afghanistan now drawing near, Pakistani strategists may have felt that it could be the right time to play the Baradar card. A senior Pakistani official said Islamabad’s move sent positive signals about its commitment to peace in Afghanistan.
Officials said Baradar was likely to be left on his own after the release, instead of transferring him to some other country or handing him over to the Afghan authorities.
“For him to be useful for the reconciliation process he has to return to his people,” one of the officials said.