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January 1, 2013 9:19 am
Pakistan has released eight members of the Afghan Taliban, some of them senior officials, in the latest sign that efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan are gaining momentum ahead of the planned withdrawal of Nato combat forces in 2014.
The men freed include at least two former ministers and four provincial governors, according to a Pakistani intelligence officer in Islamabad. They served in the Taliban regime ousted in 2001 by a US-led military campaign following al-Qaeda’s September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. At the time, al-Qaeda was based in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Among the former prisoners, the latest batch of militants to be freed by Pakistan with the approval of the US and Afghan governments, are Nooruddin Turabi, the former justice minister, and Muhammad Azeem, a former personal bodyguard of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed Taliban leader.
“The bodyguard is an important figure. He knew more about Mullah Omar’s movements than most of the Taliban cabinet,” said the intelligence officer.
Pakistan had already released 18 Afghan Taliban militants in November, in support of US and Afghan efforts to revive peace talks with the Taliban. Members of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council and some of its allies met Taliban representatives in a preliminary meeting near Paris last month.
All sides – with the possible exception of some hardline factions of the Taliban – appear to have accepted that no one is likely to win the current war and that a peaceful settlement is desirable.
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, one of Kabul’s peace negotiators, told Reuters that the Afghan government hoped to transform the Taliban into a political movement and that the Haqqani militant network, the group most experienced in guerrilla warfare, would join the peace process if the Taliban started formal talks.
“I think one consensus was that everybody acknowledged that nobody will win by military [means],” said Mr Stanekzai of the meeting in France. “Everybody acknowledged that we have to enter into a meaningful negotiation.”
Pakistan, which once joined the US in supporting Islamist militants fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, said the Taliban could eventually be included in an Afghan government if the peace negotiations succeed.
“The [Pakistani] thinking seems to be that of helping the Afghan government engage with the Taliban,” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired lieutenant-general who formerly headed the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s army-run counter-espionage agency. “The end result may see the inclusion of the Taliban in a future ruling structure [in Afghanistan]”.
Pakistani officials, however, warned that it was not clear how much influence the freed prisoners would have over the current Taliban leadership.
“The other risk is that the release could be seen by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a sign of weakness [of the Pakistani authorities],” said a serving intelligence officer from the northern city of Peshawar.
Pakistan has been struck repeatedly by bombings and killings at home perpetrated by the so-called Pakistani Taliban, a local Islamist group with ideological and religious links to the Afghan militants. Western diplomats say Islamabad’s belated realisation of the dangers of homegrown terrorism has helped it see the benefits of peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
In the past few days, the Pakistani Taliban have shown their ability to destabilise the country. On Saturday, 21 paramilitary soldiers kidnapped by the Taliban a week ago from the northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province were all found dead.
On Sunday, 20 followers of the Shia Muslim faith were killed in a suicide attack in the south-western province of Baluchistan while travelling to Iran to attend a religious ceremony. The Saudi-inspired Sunni extremists of the Taliban regard Shia Muslims as apostates.
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