Pakistan Frees Wave Of Taliban Prisoners

Pakistan has quietly been freeing insurgents—and officials worry they’re headed straight for the Afghan border.

Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid wasted no time before swinging back into action. Pakistani authorities released the Afghan insurgent commander from detention in mid-November, ostensibly to encourage peace in Afghanistan. Mujahid had been locked up since his arrest in 2009 on undisclosed charges—but as soon as he went free, Afghan diplomats say, he began making the rounds in Quetta and Peshawar, embracing senior Taliban leaders and pledging renewed violence against the Kabul government and its American protectors.

In the past three months, Pakistan has unleashed a human wave of former Taliban detainees. Afghan officials say they have no idea how many have been set free, since the Pakistani government seems to wait until weeks after the fact before announcing the releases. Complicating Afghanistan’s ability to keep track of them, almost all the former detainees are thought to have rejoined their families in the Taliban’s longtime sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border.

The Pakistanis insist it’s all in the name of reconciling Afghanistan’s warring parties. After all, hasn’t the Kabul government’s High Peace Council called for Islamabad’s assistance in offering the insurgents a goodwill gesture? But Afghan officials worry that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may actually be freeing selected detainees for an unspoken reason: to fill gaps in the Taliban’s top ranks.

Take the ISI’s sudden, unannounced release of the insurgents’ sorely missed commander Sadar Ibrahim several weeks ago. Why now, after five years behind bars? As word spread that Ibrahim was out, Taliban leaders told The Daily Beast they could only speculate as to the ISI’s intentions behind releasing him, particularly since the impetus for Ibrahim’s arrest remains a mystery to them. For their part, Afghan officials are hazarding an explanation: the Taliban’s top military leader, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, has made serious enemies in the insurgency’s top ranks and is struggling to keep his post. “We are hearing that the recently released Sadar Ibrahim might replace Zakir,” says an Afghan diplomat.

In contrast to the abrasive and high-handed Zakir, Ibrahim is an admired figure among the insurgents. He joined the Taliban back in 1994, when Mullah Mohammed Omar was just beginning to assemble his own fighting force of madrassa students amid the rubble of the fallen Soviet-backed government. After the Taliban rolled into Kabul two years later, Ibrahim became one of the top commanders in the ongoing fight against the Northern Alliance, answering directly to Omar rather than to the Taliban’s defense minister, as lesser commanders did. And in the wake of the 2001 U.S. invasion, Ibrahim was one of the first to begin rallying the Taliban’s battered and demoralized fighters to regroup.

But now that he’s out, Afghan officials are wondering whether more ISI releases are imminent. Five lower-ranking Taliban members were freed at the same time as Ibrahim; altogether, the Afghan diplomat says, more than 25 have been released in the past three months. A senior Taliban official, who was jailed for a month in Pakistan two years ago, has tried to keep a running tally of the ISI’s Afghan detainees. When the releases began, he said, roughly 130 Afghan Taliban members remained behind bars in Pakistan, including some 70 administrators, ground commanders, and former officials from the toppled Taliban government.

Among them was Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy and brother-in-law, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of several insurgent leaders captured during a February 2010 sweep. While Baradar remains in prison, his arrest seemed to mark the end of the ISI busts. Arrests did not resume even after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the Kabul government’s High Peace Council. Islamabad’s failure to go after the plotters wasn’t for lack of information: Afghan intelligence officials say the Pakistanis were given the home addresses of Afghans in Pakistan who were implicated in the suicide bombing. Nevertheless, the Pakistanis failed to follow up on the information, the officials say.

The ISI’s apparent hands-off policy is making the Afghan government frantic. “We have sufficient evidence that Taliban ministers are roaming in Karachi, Peshawar, and Quetta in luxury cars, even with bodyguards,” says an Afghan intelligence officer. “We have made video recordings of them and showed our American friends, but they never raise the subject with Pakistan.” Those who have killed U.S. or Afghan troops are greeted as heroes, according to Afghan intelligence sources and others. “From the Afghan border to the Karachi seaport, they get a red-carpet welcome, both from ordinary Pakistanis and from the country’s intelligence agencies,” says a European Union diplomat who keeps tabs on militants in the region.

Even before the arrests stopped altogether, most Afghan insurgents in Pakistan were free to come and go as they chose. Nevertheless, there were a few who were not so lucky. Some were picked up because the Americans gave Pakistani authorities no alternative. Others were detained as potential threats to Pakistan’s security because of their ties to sworn enemies of the state such as al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. An Afghan Taliban who spent two years in ISI jails, followed by two years in U.S. and Afghan detention centers, says there was a sharp difference in the questions his interrogators asked. The Pakistanis only wanted to know whether he had ever done anything to endanger their country. On the other hand, the Americans and the Afghans focused on trying to find Mullah Omar and al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden (who at the time had yet to be tracked down and killed) and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Another former detainee describes his year in ISI custody. The Pakistanis arrested him in a night raid in 2007, he says, and he spent the next nine or 10 months confined to one small room without a water closet. He says he was tortured mentally but not physically. Although he was not allowed to communicate directly with his family, some of his guards bent the rules by relaying messages via a phone number he gave them. The food was Pakistani cooking, far too spicy for Afghans like himself. “We had terrible stomach problems,” he recalls.

At first the interrogators questioned him once a week. He was asked most closely about a trip he had taken to the militant havens of North Waziristan—especially any meetings he might have had with al Qaeda operatives and other Arab jihadis. After a month, there were no more interrogations. His jailers told him to be patient. One of the interrogators finally explained what it was all about: the ISI was looking for a particular al Qaeda operative, an Egyptian who wore tribal clothes and spoke fluent Pashto. The ISI didn’t know the Egyptian’s face, but the detainee had met him. “When we learn his address or get a tip on him while he’s traveling, we’ll need you to recognize him,” the interrogator said. “And that’s it. We’re not charging you with serious crimes against the state. But you did talk to al Qaeda on your phone.”

His captivity dragged on. But early one morning a Pakistani intelligence agent woke him up, packed him into a car, and rushed him to a bus station a few kilometers away. “They asked me to keep watching for the al Qaeda guy, but as we reached the bus stand, they got word that he had changed his mind and wasn’t coming. So they brought me back to my lockup room.” They were still looking for the Egyptian when they finally let the detainee go.

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There is little or no legal recourse for the ISI’s Afghan prisoners. “The Taliban can’t publicly complain about their men being jailed in Pakistan because they don’t officially exist there,” says a former detainee. “They’re all supposed to be staying on the Afghan side of the border.” About as close as they come to public criticism of Pakistan is the latest message attributed to Mullah Omar, urging all parties to the conflict—including unnamed “neighbors” of Afghanistan—to give humane treatment to Taliban prisoners.

Nevertheless, life for at least some of the ISI’s remaining Afghan detainees is said to have improved in the past year or so. An active member of the Taliban military council, the Quetta Shura, attributes the change to the unexplained death of the Taliban’s onetime defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, in a Karachi jail on March 5, 2010. After a delay of nearly two years, Pakistani authorities announced Obaidullah’s death this past February, sending photos of his dead body and burial place to his family, together with a letter saying he had suffered a heart attack. But enraged Taliban members blamed the death on Obaidullah’s jailers. In an effort to calm them, the ISI began allowing family visits.

The new policy’s reputed beneficiaries have included some of the Taliban’s most prominent leaders. One is Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who was finally freed in late December. In the last months of his captivity he’s said to have been allowed visits from his young son and his elderly father at his Karachi jail. (Whether he deserved such compassion is another question: as the Taliban’s justice minister in the late 1990s, he oversaw the stoning of adulterers and the amputations of thieves’ hands.) Another is no less than Mullah Baradar, who’s said to have been allowed to meet with his son and other family members for the first time since his arrest. Was there any truth to press reports this past August that he also met with Afghan government officials? Taliban sources steadfastly deny it.

Those Afghans who remain behind bars in Pakistan are generally optimistic, according to a former Taliban cabinet minister. Sooner or later they expect to go free, and when that day comes, they hope the Taliban hierarchy will reward them for their loyalty and personal sacrifice. Such postprison promotions are not unprecedented, says an Afghan intelligence official, citing a pair of former detainees who, by Taliban standards, did very well indeed. “Hajji Lala and Sayyid Allaudin Agha were in Pakistani jails for five years, but after their release, they became chiefs of military operations, one in the city of Kabul and the other in the Kandahar region,” says the official.

According to Afghan intelligence, Pakistan demands one thing above all before freeing a detainee: he has to understand that Afghanistan, not Pakistan, is the place for jihad. That message seems to come through loud and clear. “It’s true that many Taliban have spent years in Pakistani jails without charges, but they become even more extremist rather than more peace-loving,” says a former Taliban diplomat now living in Kabul. “Releasing them in Pakistan allows them to go back and resume killing innocent Afghans. It’s like releasing deadly snakes back into the jungle.”

The problem isn’t only those former prisoners who are sent out by Pakistani intelligence. “Releasing captured Taliban has never worked out well,” says an Afghan Intelligence officer—and that includes even detainees the Afghans have deemed ready to go free. “In 2009 the Afghan government released a Taliban deputy minister known as Shahid Khel,” the officer recalls. “The next day he was in Quetta, and by the third week he had opened a madrassa near Quetta and was sending fighters into Afghanistan.”

Somehow Pakistan continues to play both sides. When U.S. officials accuse Islamabad of supporting the Taliban, the Pakistanis say: “Then why do we have so many of their leaders behind bars?” Then they turn around and tell the Taliban “Make yourselves at home in our country, even though at times we may be forced to make a show of arresting some of you. You have to understand the pressure we’re getting from Washington.” And that’s the least of Pakistan’s duplicity toward the Taliban, says an Afghan intelligence officer. Even as the ISI has encouraged the insurgents, the Pakistani government has acquiesced to U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas; captured as many as 1,000 al Qaeda operatives and fighters; and arrested hundreds of Taliban fighters and commanders, handing some over to the Afghan government and keeping Baradar and others under lock and key.

And yet the insurgents seem to be certain that Pakistan is on their side. An Afghan Taliban commander, having spent two years in Pakistan custody, contends that only a small number of Pakistani officials are against the Afghan Taliban. “Pakistan has a love-hate policy toward the Taliban,” the E.U. diplomat says. “They will never turn 100 percent against the Taliban, but they wouldn’t want them back in power again either.”

The Taliban can’t afford to antagonize the proprietors of the tribal areas where they are based and of their capital in exile, Quetta. And yet it seems clear that the ISI is committed to keeping Afghanistan destabilized no matter what the cost—no matter if that means betraying their Taliban proteges, or even if it might strengthen their own government’s sworn enemies in the Pakistani Taliban. The overriding priority is for Pakistan to remain the final decision maker in Afghanistan. “Until the Americans begin taking a realistic stance toward Pakistan, the dream of peace in Afghanistan will never come true,” the E.U. diplomat says. At this point, that may be impossible. And in that case the game is over. Pakistan has won.