KABUL, Afghanistan — A top Afghan negotiator said today he hopes that eight members of the Taliban freed by Pakistan will serve as peace mediators, describing Islamabad's move as a major step forward for Kabul's effort to enlist its neighbor's help in reaching a negotiated end to its 11-year war.
The eight released Monday include a man who was justice minister when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan before their 2001 overthrow as well as a onetime guard of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. It is the second batch of prisoners released by Pakistan.
Although both sides describe the deal as a step toward peace, much about the exchange remains unclear. Kabul has lobbied hard for Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners as a step toward talks, but simultaneously presses Islamabad to crack down on militants using its territory. It has not said what, if anything, this particular group might bring to the table.
Islamabad for its part has never said why it arrested the eight in the first place. Neither side has said where this batch of freed prisoners and a previous group of 18 released in November have gone, nor what they will be doing. Another 100 prisoners are believed to remain in Pakistani custody.
Ismail Qasemyar, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, called their freeing a "good, practical" step in the peace process and hoped more releases would follow. It was not known whether the eight actually favored negotiations but Qasemyar said it was hoped they would act as intermediaries between the Taliban leadership and the Kabul government.
"This is a big victory from our trip to Pakistan for peace negotiations. This is a good, practical step toward peace from Pakistan," said Qasemyar, the council's international affairs adviser and a key member of a delegation that travelled to Pakistan in November.
Pakistan is seen as key in ending the conflict. Kabul hopes the Taliban can be brought to the negotiating table before foreign troops withdraw from the country in 2014.
But Pakistan's role is mixed. While Pakistan has arrested Afghan Taliban members, normally under pressure from Washington, its powerful military intelligence service has also afforded sanctuary and support for the militants.
Recently, Pakistan appears to have an interest in promoting a negotiated solution to the war across the border, as a post-2014 upheaval could bring harsh consequences, including another surge of refugees into the country.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said the eight detainees were released to aid the peace process and included ex-justice minister Nooruddin Turabi and guard Mohammad Azeem. It was not known what role they might play in bringing the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, what links they have to the group's current leadership or their stance on negotiations.
During Taliban rule, the one-legged, one-eyed Turabi was considered to be among the hardliners in the regime, charged with dispensing harsh justice for even minor offences against the group's draconian policies.
Today, Taliban leaders are believed to be split on the question of talks, with some favoring talks and others opting for continuing the war.
Waheed Mazhda, a political analyst and former Taliban member, said that Pakistan is playing a double game with Kabul, pretending to support negotiations but releasing the Taliban prisoners to please not Kabul but the Pakistan's branch of the Taliban. The Pakistan government, he says, does not want its homegrown militants to disrupt upcoming elections.
"Where are they? What are they doing right now?" he said, referring to the 18 already released. He said that he did not believe those released favored negotiations.
The Afghan peace process has made little headway since it began several years ago, riddled by mistrust among the major players, including the United States.
Pakistan has longstanding ties to the Taliban, in part for geopolitical reasons. It fears that not having some control of who is or might one day be in power in Afghanistan could leave a vacuum which its arch-enemy, India, could fill.