By Aamir Latif and Shadi Khan Saif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – Pakistan released two key Afghan Taliban leaders last week reportedly at Washington’s request in an apparent attempt to revive a stalled peace process.
The development follows a meeting earlier this month between U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Pakistani and Taliban officials in Doha.
The release of Mullah Abdul Ghani, commonly known as Mullah Baradar, and little-known commander Abdul Samad Sani is seen as a major development by the three key stakeholders — the U.S, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But analysts do not view the development as a major breakthrough towards ending the war.
Mullah Baradar, once considered the second most influential figure after Taliban founder and supreme leader Mullah Omar, was arrested by Pakistani security agencies in the southern port city of Karachi reportedly on a U.S. tipoff in 2010. In 2013, Pakistan had announced the release of Baradar along with three other Taliban leaders on the request of the Afghan government, but he practically remained in confinement due to U.S. opposition.
Washington had previously voiced concern that the commanders would rejoin the Taliban ranks.
"Mullah Baradar and Mullah Sani's release is a mere confidence-building measure — not less not more," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan affairs, told Anadolu Agency.
"If someone believes he can play a role to broker a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, it will just be wishful thinking," he said.
"He is respectable [to the Taliban] but no longer influential because things have completely changed in the last few years".
Yusufzai was referring to the death of Mullah Omar, to whom Mullah Baradar served as a deputy, and his successor Mullah Mansur, which led to a major reshuffle in the militia's ranks.
Baradar, in his early 50s according to Yusufzai, is also suffering from some health problems and would not be able to play an active role in the proposed peace talks.
Afghan analysts believe that Baradar could have proven valuable for peace efforts had he been released years back when he had significant clout with the "rebels".
Former Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil dubbed his release a move by Islamabad to evade growing U.S. pressure.
“The release of Mullah Baradar won’t have any impact on the peace process," he said as part of a series of posts on Twitter.
In 2014, he went on to say, five key members of the Taliban — Sadr Ibrahim, the current military chief, Mullah Salam, Fazal Haq Mujahid, Daoud Jalali (Surkha) and Mir Ahmad Gul — were also released under the cover of peace. But peace did not come.
If Pakistan is honest about peace, he added, then Baradar should be handed over to Afghanistan or be allowed to join the Doha office of the Taliban.
Pakistan had brokered the landmark first round of direct talks between the fragile Afghan government and the Taliban in Islamabad in July 2015, but the process broke down after the Taliban announced the death of Mullah Omar, triggering a bitter power struggle within the militia.
Chances for the resumption of the stalled process dimmed further following the death of Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, in a U.S. drone strike on Pakistani soil last year.
Since then, several attempts to revive the peace process have been made by a four-nation group comprised of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S. and China.
Islamabad and Kabul have long accused each other of providing safe haven to militants.
A series of terrorist attacks in both countries, for which the two sides blame each other, has further strained already tense relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years.
– Talks to continue
The Taliban welcomed the release of Baradar, a founding member of their group. In a statement, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed noted there has been ‘no deals or references/contacts used’ for his release.
Analysts believe that ongoing talks between the U.S. and the Taliban — a rare instance of direct contact between the two sides — will continue despite the latest flareups in war-wracked Afghanistan, most notably the deadly Kandahar attack earlier this month that killed several senior Afghan government officials and injured a U.S general.
"The release of prisoners, including Mullah Baradar, was the Taliban's longtime demand because he is very respectable to them as a former deputy leader. They [Taliban] are cashing in on Mullah Baradar's release as a big success to satisfy their fighters in the context of talks with the U.S.,"Yusufzai said.
"However, how will the Taliban reciprocate the U.S. move? We have to wait a while to see that," he said.
"At this point, we can only say safely that talks between the two sides will continue despite ongoing attacks and counter-attacks."
The High Peace Council, the top government body tasked with reaching a peace deal with the Taliban, cautiously welcomed his release.
Qazi Mohammad Ameen Waqad, a member of the council, told Anadolu Agency that the release of Mullah Baradar can help revive the peace process, considering his background and the latest developments on the peace front.
"He was regarded as someone who always wanted a peaceful settlement of the conflict.”