Pakistan releasing key Taliban, hoping to spur peace talks

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 20, 2013 

— Pakistan’s government is trying to promote the idea of “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban to its population as it attempts to build support for recent moves to free Afghan Taliban detainees in hopes they’ll persuade insurgents from the Pakistani Taliban to join peace talks with the government.

Government officials think that empowering well-known Afghan Taliban functionaries is key not only to promoting negotiations between the Taliban and the United States but also to pushing the Afghans to cajole their Pakistan counterparts from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan movement to enter similar negotiations with the Pakistani government, whose six-year war with the movement has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, made the point last weekend in an interview with Geo News, Pakistan’s leading cable channel.

In arguing for the Afghan Taliban to intercede with their Pakistani counterparts, Aziz said, Pakistan officials would remind the Afghans to take into consideration “Pakistan’s sacrifices for Afghanistan over the last 25-30 years,” including Pakistan’s support for the Afghan resistance to the 1980s Soviet occupation and backing for the Taliban in the 1990s.

The likely messenger would Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s second in command and the operations chief for its Pakistan-based Cabinet-in-exile, the Quetta Shura, until his capture in January 2010 by Pakistan’s security agencies in the southern port city of Karachi.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday that Baradar would be released Saturday along with Mansoor Dadullah, a brother of Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a founding member of the Afghan Taliban who was killed in a 2009 firefight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban received further support last Sunday evening, when Geo News aired a special interview with Mullah Hassan Rehmani, who’s considered a close confidant of the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Rehmani was the governor of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, where Omar was born and where the Taliban headquarters were when they ruled most of the country.

The channel said the interview, the first of its kind to be aired in Pakistan since the Taliban were deposed in Afghanistan in 2001, was recorded in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

It’s highly unlikely that the interview could have been recorded or aired without the involvement of Pakistan’s military, which has ruled the country for half its 66-year history and until the May election victory of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party had exercised a virtual monopoly on foreign and defense policy.

The questions posed to Rehmani gave him the opportunity to say, in limited Urdu, that the Taliban would have no further dispute with the U.S. or its people once the U.S. had withdrawn its military from Afghanistan. The two countries even share a similar position on the need to hold Syria’s President Bashar Assad accountable for humanitarian crimes against his own citizens, Rehmani said.

He said the Taliban were waiting to see whether the U.S. would “keep its word” about holding direct talks, after negotiations failed earlier this year in Doha, Qata. If it did, the two sides would exchange a list of demands that would form the basis of future talks. He said a restored Taliban government in Afghanistan would reach out to the wider world and abide by the conventions of the United Nations charter, and that it wouldn’t confine women to their houses or bar them from education, as it had in the past. Religious minority groups would be granted protection and special concessions, Rehmani said.

The interview was broadcast amid moves by the Pakistani government to hold exploratory peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, after a conference in August at which the country’s political parties unanimously approved a government proposal to hold an unconditional dialogue.

The Pakistani Taliban responded by announcing two preconditions for talks: the release of jailed militants and the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan.

The military rejected the preconditions, and has since vowed to utterly crush the Pakistani Taliban after a two-star army general was assassinated in the northern district of Dir. Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi was the highest-ranked officer to be killed in a combat zone since the insurgency was launched in 2007.

The resultant political narrative throughout Pakistan’s media has differentiated between the “good” Afghan Taliban and the “bad” Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban have been projected as focused solely on fighting U.S.-led foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan and as being ideologically opposed to their Pakistani counterparts’ insurgency.

Officials and the news media in Pakistan, on the other hand, increasingly describe the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan as traitors to the country and to Islam.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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