Salahuddin Rabbani, Head Afghan High Peace Council called on General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff at General Headquarters. — Photo by ISPR

ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented gesture of support for Afghanistan’s struggling reconciliation process, Pakistan agreed on Tuesday to release several Taliban leaders detained in the country’s jails.

The development, which hasn’t been made public by either side, came on the second day of Afghan High Peace Council Chief Mr Salahuddin Rabbani’s three-day visit to Islamabad to re-start the peace process which has been in the limbo for over a year now.

It was unclear if the detainees, who are said to be numbering close to 10, have been set free on Tuesday or would be released at the conclusion of Mr Rabbani’s visit.

The group, according to a source, does not include Mullah Baradar — Taliban’s second in command — who was captured by Pakistani security forces in Karachi in 2010.

Talks between the peace delegation led by Mr Rabbani and Pakistani officials would continue on Wednesday when the two sides are expected to come up with a joint statement on the progress made by them.

A Pakistani official, who had been briefed on the talks, told Dawn that “significant progress has already been made”.

The release of Taliban detainees in Pakistan has been a longstanding Afghan demand for catalysing the slow moving process.

A keen follower of the negotiations, who didn’t want to be named, said the release of prisoners was a positive step, which would provide the right environment for reconciliation.

Islamabad has long said that it supported peace and stability in Afghanistan, but has been holding back its cards in view of lack of clarity about the peace process with Taliban both in Kabul and Washington.

However, with the drawdown deadline approaching fast and all sorts of unfavourable scenarios for Pakistan being projected (with the assumption that instability in Afghanistan would continue), the government appears to have changed its tack and decided to more proactively support the process for the sake of its success. It is more than clear to Pakistani strategists that successful reconciliation in Afghanistan is their best bet.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former envoy to US and UK, had last week told the Senate Standing Committee on Defence that absence of a political settlement in Afghanistan “could lead to disastrous consequences for the region, especially for Pakistan, which is already reeling from over three decades of turmoil and conflict in its western neighbour”.

President Asif Ali Zardari in his meeting with the Afghan peace delegation reiterated the government’s position that Pakistan would continue to extend every possible support to Afghanistan in its journey to peace and socio-economic development.

Mr Zardari noted that a peaceful, stable and economically developed Afghanistan was vital for Pakistan’s own stability and prosperity.

The delegation also called on Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani at the military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Mr Rabbani was invariably reminded by all his interlocutors in Islamabad that trust deficit remained to be addressed and that cross-border shelling by Afghanistan was adding to problems in ties.