ISLAMABAD Pakistan began releasing some Afghan Taliban prisoners who the Kabul government believes could help in reconciliation efforts, an official said on Wednesday, the clearest sign that Islamabad will support the troubled Afghan peace process.
Afghan officials, hopeful that direct contact with Taliban commanders could give them leverage in any peace talks, have long urged Pakistan for access to prisoners.
The task of energizing the Afghan peace process is gaining urgency as NATO combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. Some Afghans fear the country could face civil war or another Taliban takeover if insurgents are not brought into a serious peace process before then.
An Afghan official said some Taliban captives had been released but Islamabad and Kabul were at odds over how many would be freed.
Earlier, Abdul Hamid Mubarez, a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, visiting Islamabad, told Reuters: "Pakistan has sent us a very strong message and Pakistan has agreed in principle to start releasing prisoners from today."
Pakistan, with its historical ties to Afghan militant groups, is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to pacify Afghanistan, perhaps President Barack Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge as he starts a second term.
It is not clear why Pakistan made the gesture at this time but it has come under mounting pressure to support U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan as the endgame nears.
A senior Pakistani army official said it had not yet been decided if the former Afghan Taliban second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, would be released.
Afghan officials have identified him as a figure who may command enough respect to persuade the Taliban to pursue peace after more than a decade of fighting U.S.-led NATO and Afghan forces.
In August, senior officials from both countries said Afghan officials have held secret talks with Baradar.
The decision to release the prisoners was a major achievement for the Afghan High Peace Council, which has been struggling to ease mistrust between the Taliban and the Kabul government.
Afghan officials have suspected that Pakistan has been holding Afghan Taliban members in jail to retain some control over peace efforts and have a say in any settlement.
Those in detention include former Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Toorabi and Mullah Jahangirwal, former secretary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Allahdat Tayab, an ex-deputy minister, Afghan High Peace Council officials say.
"We have asked Pakistan to release them because they were the policymakers of the Taliban and close aides to Mullah Omar," said Habibullah Fawzi, a senior member of the Afghan peace team.
Their release could encourage a number of Taliban commanders and fighters to join peace efforts, he said. Afghan embassy officials in Islamabad said the names of about 10 Afghan Taliban militants had been floated.
Afghanistan's government has failed to secure direct talks with the Taliban and no significant progress is expected before 2014, when most NATO combat troops withdraw, a senior Afghan official closely involved with reconciliation efforts told Reuters last week.
There has also been little progress on other fronts. The Taliban said in March they were suspending nascent peace talks with the United States held in Qatar, blaming "erratic and vague" U.S. statements.
Even if the release of the Afghan Taliban prisoners does not produce breakthroughs, it could improve Pakistan's image and bolster its argument that it is committed to stabilising Afghanistan. Afghan officials have often seen Pakistan as a reluctant partner in attempts to broker talks.
Afghan and U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of using insurgent groups, including the highly lethal Haqqani network, as proxies in Afghanistan to counter the influence of rival India. Pakistan rejects that.
Afghanistan has been known to want access to Taliban leaders belonging to the so-called Quetta Shura, or council, named after the Pakistani city where they are believed to be based.
Pakistan has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and says no Taliban leaders are in Quetta. (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel and Janet Lawrence)