Pakistan agrees to free more Taliban prisoners
Pakistan agreed on Friday to free more Taliban prisoners in the future, a move considered a key step to coaxing the militant group into peace negotiations to end the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The decision was announced in a statement by the foreign ministry in Islamabad after a one-day visit by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul, who held talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar.
The statement gave no details on when the prisoners would be released, how many would go free or whether the militant group's former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would be among them.
Earlier this month, Pakistan decided to release nine Taliban prisoners in a move that Kabul welcomed as a positive first step and an indication that Islamabad supports the stalled Afghan peace process.
The cooperation of Pakistan, which has longstanding ties to the Taliban, is seen as key to jumpstarting an Afghan peace process that has made little headway since it began several years ago, hobbled by distrust among the major players, including the United States. The Afghan and U.S. governments accuse Islamabad of backing insurgents - an allegation Pakistan denies - and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.
With Afghan presidential elections and the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops looming in 2014, Afghanistan and its international allies are trying to push a peace process with the Taliban to bring an end to the conflict.
The foreign ministry statement after Rasoul's meeting with Khar said both sides agreed to the "release of more prisoners," but gave no further details.
Rasoul was expected to press Pakistan to free more Taliban prisoners, including Baradar, whom Afghanistan considers to be key to the reconciliation process, said an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the talks.
Baradar was captured in Pakistan in 2010 because he reportedly was having secret talks with the Afghans.
Khar, the Pakistani foreign minister, said during a joint news conference earlier Friday that the release of prisoners was "discussed thoroughly" and that the two countries had "operationalized" a joint commission to address the issue.
Pakistan also shared with Afghanistan a draft of a strategic partnership agreement the two countries hope to negotiate over the next year, Khar said. Afghanistan signed a similar agreement with Pakistan's archenemy India last year, causing consternation in Islamabad.
The Afghan foreign minister welcomed Pakistan's efforts.
"We want all Afghan Taliban to return to their country, join the constitutional political process there and play their part in furthering the construction and development of our nation," Rasoul said.
The Taliban prisoners released earlier by Pakistan, including some senior leaders, are believed to still be in the country, said the Afghan official who spoke ahead of Rasoul's visit.
While it's unclear whether the Taliban are interested in negotiating peace, the official maintained that there are indeed key Taliban figures who support a political process to end the violence, but that some of them are afraid to establish direct contact with the Afghan government because some of those who did in the past were killed or detained.
Afghanistan wants Pakistan to encourage Taliban leaders to join the Afghan-led peace process and allow Taliban negotiators to travel to third countries for talks without detaining them or putting pressure on their families, the official said.
Informal contacts have been established with Taliban officials in recent years, but so far no formal negotiations have begun.
Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul and an expert on Taliban issues, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he met informally about two months ago in Qatar with several Taliban figures, including Tayyab Agha, a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former deputy at two ministries during the Taliban regime.
Muzhda said the Taliban are interested in talks, but with the U.S. and not with the Afghan government. If any negotiations begin, they would be between the U.S. and the Taliban, he said.
"If there was a good result from that, then the Afghan government could be involved," Muzhda said.
Riechmann reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.