ISLAMABAD, Nov 14 — Pakistan said it had released at least seven senior Afghan Taliban prisoners on Wednesday, rekindling fragile hopes that Islamabad may be ready to help broker peace talks with the militants as the Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan looms.
A senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “seven to eight” Taliban prisoners had been set free but refused to name them. A Western official said the figure could be as high as 14 prisoners. News reports citing Afghan officials said the freed prisoners included Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, a former Taliban justice minister and religious hard-liner.
It was unclear whether the men were to be transferred to Afghan custody or released in Pakistan. But the announcement was mostly seen as an initial sign of good faith by the Pakistanis — perhaps to Afghan Taliban leaders in exile in Pakistan, perhaps to Afghan or American officials who seek to open talks, most likely all of the above — in a slow-moving negotiations process that has been blighted by deep mistrust on all sides.
“Things are starting to move,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran Pakistani commentator. “This is definitely an attempt by Pakistan to change tack and show both sides that they are serious about a settlement and an endgame.”
For years, the ability of the Pakistani Army’s intelligence agency to limit the movement of Afghan Taliban leaders has been seen as a political trump card — an insurance policy that any deal between the insurgents and the Americans or Afghan government would have to go through Pakistan first. Both countries have lobbied the Pakistanis to at least agree in principle to allow more freedom for Taliban leaders to travel in order to make any attempt at peace talks possible.
The release on Wednesday came at the end of a three-day visit to Islamabad by a delegation of Afghan officials from the High Peace Council, which is spearheading the effort by the government of President Hamid Karzai to draw the Taliban into peace talks.
Prisoner releases have been a core demand of the delegation, which had canceled two trips to Pakistan over disagreements with the Pakistanis. “Our demand was that they should hand over some of those Taliban prisoners to us,” Maulavi Shafiullah Nuristani, a member of the High Peace Council, said in Kabul.
In return, the members of the Afghan delegation presented Pakistani officials with a document outlining their intentions for the faltering peace process, known in Afghanistan as “reconciliation,” for the idea that Taliban representatives could perhaps be brought into the national government in return for ending their campaign of violence.
A joint statement issued by Pakistan and Afghanistan on Wednesday evening noted that Pakistan “supports Afghanistan’s vision and road map for achieving durable and lasting peace” and that all sides would “facilitate safe passage to potential negotiators to advance the reconciliation process.”
The two countries agreed to hold a conference of religious scholars, possibly in Saudi Arabia, to discuss Islamist militancy. And they reiterated calls for the Taliban to cut its ties to Al Qaeda — a major American demand.
It was unclear how many of the freed prisoners were high-level Taliban officials. If his release is confirmed, Mullah Turabi would certainly fall in that category: He was the Taliban’s justice minister, and he had legal responsibility for the brutal public executions during Taliban rule in the 1990s and for the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamian Province in 2001. He was set free by the Afghan government in 2002 in controversial circumstances, only to be later detained in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis made a point, however, of noting that another influential name was not on the release list: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former deputy Taliban leader who was captured with American help in February 2010. Afghan officials say he may hold the key to unlocking a tentative negotiation process with the Taliban.
That process is seen by American officials as a crucial part of their military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — even as they continue to try to weaken the Taliban’s military footing within Afghanistan. But there are many hurdles to opening talks, with distrust running deep among all four potential parties — the Taliban, the Americans, the Afghans and the Pakistanis.
Hopes of starting a negotiating process seemed to collapse in March, when the Taliban publicly rejected American efforts to set up a back channel in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar amid the Americans’ refusal to release Taliban figures held in the Guantánamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
American officials believe that an intense debate is under way inside the Taliban leadership over whether to engage in any peace talks or to continue fighting until the bulk of Western forces are gone.
On the Afghan side, even as Mr. Karzai has repeatedly reached out to the Taliban to reconcile with his government, they have rejected the overtures, with some senior figures vowing they will never relent as long as Mr. Karzai or his allies hold power in Kabul. Further complicating matters, Mr. Karzai is suspicious of American overtures toward the Taliban that he views as attempts to go behind his back.
The Pakistani position is also mired in complexity. The United States and Afghanistan have long accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency of providing shelter to Taliban leaders and fighters in the western province of Baluchistan and the sprawling port city of Karachi, where Mullah Baradar was captured. The ISI admits to some contact with insurgents, but insists it has no influence over militant operations.
The most contentious issue is the ISI’s hold over the Taliban ruling council, known as the Quetta Shura, named after the capital of Baluchistan, although experts believe meetings now take place in districts around the province.
In recent years, however, that grip has loosened, according to some Western officials and Pakistani analysts.
The new ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, is said by some officials to be seeking to mend fences in order to strengthen his hand at any future negotiating table.
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.