ISLAMABAD — Pakistan announced Saturday it was releasing seven more Taliban prisoners in a diplomatic overture designed to help end nearly 12 years of war in neighboring Afghanistan, but doubts linger over whether the men will actually help advance peace negotiations or simply head back to the battlefield.
Some 26 other Taliban detainees have been released by Pakistan over the last year in a policy that has come under criticism partly because some of them are believed to have returned to the fight.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified the seven detainees as Mansoor Dadullah, Said Wali, Abdul Manan, Karim Agha, Sher Afzal, Gul Muhammad and Muhammad Zai. Authorities have not said on what charges they had arrested the men originally.
The most well-known among them is Dadullah, a commander in southern Afghanistan who was captured in February 2008 by Pakistani forces in the Baluchistan province. According to the Long War Journal, which tracks militant activity in the two countries, Dadullah took over from his brother who was killed by British special forces in Helmand province in 2007. The brother was infamous for kidnapping people and often beheading his victims.
Little is known however about the other six detainees, the circumstances of their capture, and how long they've been in custody.
Even Dadullah's status within the Afghan Taliban remains murky, and he had earlier accused the Taliban of playing a part in his brother's death. Relations between Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his brother had deteriorated when reports emerged that millions of dollars of ransom money was collected but not shared within the Taliban. In 2008 The Long War Journal reported that Dadullah had been relieved of his command, although Dadullah denied it.
Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban, said he doubted Saturday's announced release would do much toward ending the war, considering the seven men were smaller players than the 26 already set free. Following the visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai two weeks ago to discuss the peace negotiations, he said, Pakistan had to "give something."
"Mr. Karzai came to Pakistan with great expectations," he said. "Pakistan had to give something."
Pakistan is seen as key to the peace process because of its strong historical ties with the Taliban. But Pakistan and Afghanistan have long had troubled relations and view each other with suspicion. Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of providing sanctuary for the insurgents.
With such distrust on both sides, each step in the peace process is fraught with tension.
Previous prisoner releases caused friction with Kabul and Washington, which were both frustrated that Pakistan was not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of the former inmates. But both Pakistani and Afghan officials have said Afghanistan did not request the prisoners be tracked.
At least some of the released militants are believed to have rejoined the insurgency, underscoring how difficult it will be to reach a political settlement before the end of next year when most U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.
Concerns that these militants would just go back to the fight were apparent Saturday in Afghanistan.
"It is good, the release of these prisoners, but only if they go into normal life. If they are going to take weapons to fight again, they'll never help the peace process in Afghanistan," said Mohammad Mohaqeq, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, which represents the government in the peace talks.
Despite repeated Afghan requests, Pakistan has not yet agreed to release its most important Taliban prisoner, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the insurgent group's former deputy commander. The U.S. is also reluctant to see Baradar released, believing he would return to the battlefield, and has asked Pakistan to give notice if he is to be set free.
On Saturday, an Afghan foreign ministry official called the release a "positive but small step" by the Pakistani government. But he made clear the Afghans would like to see more.
"We expect additional and more significant steps by Pakistan in the future, steps that Pakistani leaders can easily take if they so decide, including the release of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban leaders currently in Pakistani jails," the official said. He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
Yousufzai, the Taliban expert, said he was surprised that Afghanistan was had vested so much importance in the prisoner releases. He said any militant who is captured loses their stature and influence in the organization. Even the group's former number two would need time to regain his role if he's released.
"The Afghan Taliban would not let those people who are in jail represent them," Yousufzai said.
Pakistan has a long history with the Afghan Taliban. It helped the group seize control of Afghanistan in 1996, and when the U.S. invaded in 2001, many insurgents fled across the border into the Pakistani tribal regions. At the time, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf agreed under intense U.S. pressure to cut ties to the group.
But Islamabad is widely believed to have maintained relations with the Taliban, despite official denials, while at the same time fighting other Taliban-affiliated militants in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Pakistan has said it supports a peace agreement with the Taliban as the best way to avoid Afghanistan descending into further chaos after the U.S. drawdown.
Many in the Pakistani government and the military fear that instability in Afghanistan would provide cover for domestic Taliban militants at war with the Pakistani state. Those militants already have some sanctuaries in Afghanistan and periodically stage cross-border attacks into Pakistan. A renewed civil war in Afghanistan would likely send a flood of refugees into Pakistan, which is already home to hundreds of thousands of Afghans refugees.
AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan Kathy Gannon and AP writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.