ISLAMABAD (AP) — Members of an Afghan delegation tasked with holding peace talks with the Taliban are in Pakistan to meet with the group's former deputy leader in an attempt to breathe life into the stuttering negotiations, Pakistani and Afghan officials said Wednesday.
Pakistan released the former Taliban No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in September after years of detention, a move that stirred hope among many Afghan and Pakistani officials that he could help forge a peace deal between the insurgents and the Afghan government.
The U.S. has also pushed for a peace deal with the Taliban, hoping it will prevent Afghanistan from spiraling into further instability when most American troops withdraw by the end of 2014. Washington is currently negotiating with Kabul to work out a pact to let some forces remain beyond that deadline.
But some observers have expressed doubt that Baradar will make a difference in jump-starting the peace process, saying he has been in captivity too long and may no longer be trusted by the Taliban. The insurgent group has also poured cold water on hopes that the former deputy leader will spark a breakthrough in negotiations.
The Pakistani and Afghan government officials who said the delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council was in Pakistan to meet with Baradar spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
The Afghan official said the delegation was in Islamabad and was headed by the council's chief, Salahuddin Rabbani, and another prominent member, Masoom Stanikzai. The Pakistani official refused to provide details.
Baradar was arrested in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010 in a joint operation with the CIA after he held secret peace talks with the Afghan government. The arrest outraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who immediately called for his release. Pakistan resisted for years, exacerbating already tense relations with neighboring Afghanistan.
After Baradar's release, the Afghan government pushed for a meeting between him and the peace council, hoping it would help negotiations. But a senior Taliban official said in recent days that a meeting between Baradar and the council wouldn't do any good, claiming the former deputy leader had no interest in holding discussions with Afghan officials. Also, Taliban prisoners do not represent the group, even after they are freed, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
The Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with Karzai, his government or its representatives. Attempts to open talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in June ended in failure after Karzai accused the militants of setting up a government in exile and demanded they remove their flag and a sign identifying the movement as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban refused and closed their office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Pakistan has released more than 30 Taliban prisoners over the last year at the Afghan government's request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations. But there is no sign that the releases have helped peace talks, and some of the prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government.
Some of the releases ended up causing friction with Kabul and Washington, which were both frustrated that Pakistan was not monitoring the whereabouts and activities of all the former inmates. Pakistani officials have said they felt slighted by the criticism because there was no request to keep tabs on the prisoners.
The U.S. was reluctant to see Baradar released, worried that he would return to the battlefield. That could give the Taliban a boost at a time when the U.S. is racing to meet a deadline to withdraw most of its troops by the end of 2014.
It is believed that Baradar is being held at a "safe house" in Pakistan, even after his release. That has caused tension with the Taliban, who have complained that the former leader has not truly been freed. Pakistani officials have said Baradar is free but is living under tight security for his own safety.
Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. Pakistan helped the group seize control of Afghanistan in 1996, and Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of providing the insurgents sanctuary on its territory following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Many analysts also believe Pakistan has maintained its ties with the Taliban as a way to counter the influence of archenemy India in Afghanistan. But there is also a significant level of distrust of Pakistan among the Taliban, a feeling that has been reinforced by Islamabad's detention of insurgents — possibly as bargaining chips.
Islamabad is also fighting its own related insurgent movement, the Pakistani Taliban.
Gannon reported from Kabul. Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report from Islamabad.