Founding Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s release is the fulfillment of a long-standing Kabul demand, says the US State Department, as diplomatic circles in Washington see this as opening new possibilities for improvement in US-Pakistan relations as well.
“We are aware of the reports and would refer you to the Pakistani authorities and to the Afghan government, which has repeatedly asked for his release to help facilitate a peace process,” said a US State Department spokesperson when contacted for the confirmation of Mullah Baradar’s release.
On Thursday, Afghan Taliban confirmed media reports that Pakistani authorities had released their former deputy chief and that they “made no compromise” to get him out.
Mullah Baradar co-founded the Taliban movement with Mullah Omar and was a prominent member of the Taliban government before it was toppled in October 2001.
He was the most high-profile Taliban leader in Pakistan’s custody and was arrested in February 2010 in a joint ISI and CIA operation. Mullah Baradar’s release came less than two weeks after special US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, to discuss various options for ending the Afghan conflict.
Reports in the US media suggested that Mullah Baradar was among several senior Taliban leaders freed this week, after the Taliban demanded their release in direct talks with Mr Khalilzad on Oct 12.
Reports originating in Kabul suggested that Mullah Baradar would stay in Pakistan and shuttle between the Taliban’s Doha office, Kabul and Islamabad.
A Taliban official told reporters in Doha that his release would further enhance the US-led effort for negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha where American officials have already held two rounds of talks with the Afghan rebels.
US media reports also noted that Mullah Baradar’s release followed the election of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has long advocated talks with the Taliban as the only viable option for ending the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan.
During a visit to Washington early this month, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also pledged support to the US move to engage the Taliban.
Diplomatic sources told Dawn that Pakistan came close to releasing Mullah Baradar in 2012-13 as well, when the Taliban’s Doha office became operational. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, strongly opposed the decision to set up a Taliban office in Doha, arguing that it amounted to granting diplomatic recognition to the movement. This also squandered the move to involve Mullah Baradar in peace negotiations.
During the same period, Pakistan agreed to allow a representative of the Kabul government to meet Mullah Baradar in prison but the Taliban leader refused to see the envoy.
“Yet, the Afghan government continued to urge Pakistan to release Mullah Baradar in almost every meeting they had with Pakistan,” a diplomatic source said. “They believe he can play a key role in bringing peace to Afghanistan,” the source added.