Pakistan’s Sinister Use of Prisoners

Ron Moreau on Islamabad’s dangerous Taliban release

The Taliban have always had a one-point agenda in their peace strategy: to get the maximum number of prisoners released as quickly as possible from Pakistani jails and U.S. lockups at Guantánamo and inside Afghanistan. To their mind, only after a steady stream of important, battlefield-hardened prisoners is being freed, thus strengthening the insurgency in the field, can a serious discussion of ceasefires and other confidence-building measure be held.

And no one knows that better than Pakistan, which is beginning to exert its considerable influence over any Afghanistan endgame as the U.S. and other coalition forces prepare to withdraw from the combat zone in 2014. Pakistan is determined to play a major, if not the prime, role in any peace settlement in order to protect its many national-security interests in Afghanistan, including what it sees as its sacrosanct western border.

To do so Pakistan has released more than two dozen top Taliban prisoners over the past two months ostensibly as a goodwill gesture to put some momentum back in the moribund peace process. Pakistan’s motives are largely selfish. Islamabad felt ignored by, and was skeptical of, American peace feelers to the Taliban, knowing that it is holding most of the cards in any eventual settlement. Now it wants to get back in the driver’s seat.

But Pakistan realistically knew it couldn’t stop the American peace initiative that resulted in several desultory negotiating rounds in the Gulf state of Qatar between the Taliban and a U.S. delegation over the past two years. So it went ahead and issued Pakistani passports to several Taliban leaders in order to facilitate their movement from Pakistan and other countries to Qatar, knowing that the talks would fail.

They did. Last March the Taliban delegation, which had never received any negotiating guidance from its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar who remains silent and deeply underground, called off the talks, denouncing the U.S.’s “shaky, erratic and vague” stance and its “ever-changing position.”

Senior Taliban operatives who are knowledgeable of the Qatar talks say that it was a hopeless exercise from the beginning. “We sat in Qatar with empty hands and minds,” says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban political leader. “We never had a proper plan. The whole process was imposed on us.” “We were rushed to Qatar without preparations,” Zabihullah adds. “It was a Pakistani agenda, and we played the role of the dummy.”

Pakistan has plenty of leverage over the Taliban. Not only does it offer sanctuary to Taliban commanders, fighters, and their families, it continues to hold some very prominent Taliban prisoners, including Mullah Omar’s former deputy and brother-in-law Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Now it has begun to release a number of these Taliban detainees, including former hard-line justice minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabai.

For its part Kabul released some 80 Taliban prisoners earlier this January and says it will release hundreds more in the near future. But until now the Taliban seems unimpressed with Kabul’s gesture, saying talks with “an American puppet regime” are “pointless.”

Islamabad says it is releasing prisoners so they can rejoin their families, which mostly live in Pakistan, and perhaps facilitate talks. But it would be naïve to think that once the detainees are released they will do anything but pay a quick visit home and then head back to Afghanistan and rejoin the fight as several recently released senior commanders have done.

If the talks don’t resume, Pakistan will shed no tears. Pakistan is happy to see a weak, destabilized Afghanistan next door. A united, nationalistic government in Kabul would be Islamabad’s worst nightmare. Strong Kabul governments before the Soviet invasion of 1979 never tired of trumpeting various territorial claims on Pakistan. Kabul never officially recognized the 19th century, British-drawn Durand Line as the international border between the two countries.

With the freed prisoners fueling the insurgency, the fighting doubtlessly will continue until both sides are exhausted. And that could take an awful long time. Pakistan can live with that.