KABUL, Afghanistan — A top Afghan peace mediator hailed Pakistan's recent decision to free nine members of the Taliban who favor negotiations, saying Saturday it was a sign Islamabad is willing to help bring the militant group to the table and end Afghanistan's 11-year-old war.
The cooperation of Pakistan, which has long-standing ties to the Taliban, is seen as key to jump-starting the stalled Afghan peace process. The Afghan and U.S. governments accuse Islamabad of backing insurgents — an allegation Pakistan denies — and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.
Afghanistan needs Pakistan's help in reaching out to top Taliban leaders, but still insists that peace talks be led by Afghans.
Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council who led a delegation to Islamabad last week, said Pakistan's prisoner release marked a shift in the neighboring country's policy. In the past, the Pakistanis have arrested Taliban figures interested in peace talks with the Afghan government, he said, but now the government is releasing them and pledging to give them safe passage to negotiations.
"It seems that Pakistani officials have realized that a close cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be effective for the peace initiative," Rabbani said. "Of course, this is a vision we have been insisting on for a long time."
Rabbani, whose delegation spent four days in Islamabad meeting with high-ranking government, political and religious leaders, said Pakistan has pledged to release additional Taliban prisoners who will be allowed to stay in Pakistan, return to Afghanistan or seek residence in a third country. While nothing can guarantee they won't rejoin Taliban fighters, Rabbani said he was confident that they would continue to cooperate with the peace council. "We will be in contact with those released," he said.
The Taliban welcomed the release of the prisoners. "Without a doubt, releasing prisoners fosters confidence between two neighboring countries and their nations," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement issued Friday.