In a move intended to encourage the Taliban to join stalled peace negotiations with the Afghan government, Pakistan this week released at least eight jailed members of that militant group.
The releases, granted by Islamabad after repeated requests, is seen by some as a sign that Pakistan is finally prepared to play a constructive role in jump-starting reconciliation efforts that have yielded little since they began several years ago. Skeptics -- including the Afghan government -- say that while it is a positive step, Islamabad must do much more to prove its commitment to the Kabul-led peace process.
The Afghan government and its Western allies have stepped up efforts to find a political solution to the ongoing battle against Taliban militants. There are fears that the country could descend into civil war or face another Taliban takeover if militants are not brought into a serious peace process before 2014, when the majority of U.S. and NATO-led ISAF troops will leave.
Islamabad is seen as a crucial player in the process. Pakistan's ties to the Taliban date back to the 1990s, when it provided arms, training, and intelligence to the militants. Islamabad was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government after it took power in Afghanistan in 1996. After the regime's fall in 2001, following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, many Taliban leaders took shelter inside Pakistan.
Pakistan's release of the prisoners, who were reportedly freed late on November 15, has been met with widespread praise -- from the Afghan government to the Taliban to U.S. officials in Kabul.
According to media reports, among the released prisoners are three prominent Taliban: Mullah Nuruddin Turbai, a former justice minister; Allahdad Tabib, former deputy minister of communications; and Mullah Jahangirwal, a special adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Also reportedly released were former Baghlan Province Governor Abdul Salam; former Konduz Province Governor Mowlawi Muhammad; two former government officials, Haji Qutub and Mowlawi Matiullah; and a former senior commander and deputy minister, Sayed Saduddin Agha.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says that although Pakistan's action is a positive step, the release is only "a single goodwill measure and nothing else."
Kugelman says Pakistan needs to develop a clear policy before it can be said that it has changed course and is willing to play a positive, constructive role in ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
"If there's one thing we can say about the Pakistani government, it is that it really doesn't have a clearly defined or strategic policy in terms of how it wants to proceed toward an Afghanistan endgame," Kugelman says. "On the one hand, there's been a lot of talk about having a key role at the negotiating table, but on the other hand there have been mixed messages coming from Islamabad for a number of months and years. It's still unclear what Pakistan wants from all of this."
Kugelman adds that the Taliban itself is sharply divided on the issue of peace talks. The Taliban, which he describes as a "very diffuse and complex" group, disagrees on how it should proceed with the peace process, with some hard-line Taliban protesting vehemently against participating in negotiations of any kind.
David H. Young, a Washington-based conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says Pakistan is unlikely to abandon its policy of maintaining strategic influence in Afghanistan via the Taliban.
Young, who was a civilian adviser to the U.S. Army in eastern Afghanistan, says the prisoner deal is in keeping with Pakistani interests but is unlikely to help the peace process.
Referring to Pakistani intelligence's long-rumored support for the Taliban, Young says that if the country really wants to encourage reconciliation in Afghanistan it should stop the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from financing and arming the Afghan Taliban. Another step, Young says, would be for Islamabad to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's former deputy leader who was arrested in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi in February 2010.
Baradar was reportedly at the top of the 40-man wish list of prisoners Kabul wanted Pakistani authorities to release. Young says the fact that Islamabad has neither released nor transferred Baradar for the past two years indicates how reluctant it is to hand over the one figure who is likely to facilitate reconciliation efforts. Baradar was reportedly arrested for facilitating secret talks between Kabul and the Taliban leadership.
Young predicts that Pakistan will drag out the peace process until the Taliban is in a stronger bargaining position, namely after 2014 when international troops leave. For now, he says, small gestures like the release of Taliban prisoners strike a good balance for Pakistan between securing its own interests in Afghanistan, where it seeks a more Islamist government in Kabul, and appearing agreeable to facilitating the peace process.
Assuming that Pakistan wants to play an active role in the peace talks, Young says the country will only accept a political settlement in Afghanistan that gives it strategic influence in Kabul and minimizes the role of archrival India.
"[A policy] that involves high-level Taliban involvement in the government, guaranteed number of officials in the various ministries, and something that enables them to save face and say that we have overthrown the [Afghan President] Karzai government or instilled a more fair and stable government," Young says. "A government that is more reflective, in part, of Taliban values in order to keep Pakistan's buffer in southwest and southeast Afghanistan."
The release of the Taliban prisoners in Pakistan came after Salahuddin Rabbani, leader of the Afghan High Peace Council, the presidentially appointed body tasked with negotiating with the Taliban, held talks with senior Pakistani government officials.
Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Daudzai, has welcomed the release of Taliban prisoners and announced on November 16 that Islamabad has agreed in principle to release even more.
The Taliban has likewise hailed the freeing of its members.
"We consider this as a good step and welcome it," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as saying. "We wish to have more prisoners released. This will undoubtedly increase trust between two countries and people."
The release of Taliban prisoners comes after a string of setbacks. In March, the Taliban said they were suspending talks with the United States only weeks after they opened a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar. Kabul objected to the Qatar talks on the basis that they were not Afghan-led.
The Taliban said in a statement that the U.S. approach was "erratic and shaky" and accused Washington of going against their word.