ISLAMABAD — Pakistan freed the Afghan Taliban’s former deputy leader on Saturday after years of detention in a move that many officials in both countries hope will aid Afghanistan’s peace process.
But others doubt Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s release will do much good, and the United States, which opposed his release, is worried he could return to the battlefield. That could give the Taliban in Afghanistan a boost at a time the U.S. is drawing down its troops and increasingly relying on Afghan forces to fight insurgents.
The Afghan government has demanded that Pakistan free Baradar ever since he was arrested in a joint CIA-Pakistani intelligence raid in the southern city of Karachi in 2010. Pakistan resisted for years, exacerbating tense relations with neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s change of heart came amid a renewed push to help strike a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government before the U.S. withdraws most of its combat troops by 2014. Pakistan is increasingly worried that further instability in Afghanistan could make it more difficult to fight Islamic militants at home.
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Baradar was released Saturday, said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry without providing details.
Baradar will remain in Pakistan after his release and will be provided with tight security, said Pakistani intelligence and security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. He will be free to meet with anyone he chooses, they said. Presumably that could include talks with Taliban commanders and Afghan officials to aid the peace effort.
Baradar’s family, which lives in Karachi, had not heard from him by Saturday evening, said a family friend, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman welcomed Baradar’s release and urged Pakistan to ensure that he is accessible to the High Peace Council, which the government has authorized to negotiate with the Taliban.
Baradar, who is around 50, was one of the founding members of the Taliban along with the group’s leader Mullah Omar. He served as a senior military leader and deputy defense minister after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996.
Pakistan has released at least 33 Taliban prisoners in the past year at the Afghan government’s request in an attempt to boost peace negotiations between the insurgents and Kabul. But there is no sign the previous releases have helped peace talks, and some prisoners are believed to have returned to the fight against the Afghan government.
The U.S. asked Pakistan to keep Baradar under house arrest rather than set him free, said senior Pakistani and American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.