In order to build trust with the Taliban, Afghanistan is working to bring back insurgent detainees from neighboring Pakistan.
The plan, still being shaped, is part of a broader effort to entice the insurgents into negotiations to end their 16-year war against Kabul.
Under the plan, Afghan Taliban detainees would be released from Pakistani custody in exchange for Pakistani militants currently detained in Afghanistan. The two sides are also working to secure the release of Western hostages held by the insurgents.
In a sign the exchange would be significant for the insurgents, a senior Afghan security official privy to the discussions with Islamabad told Radio Mashaal that the proposed exchange includes high-profile Taliban leaders such as the movement’s former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Ahmadullah Muti (alias Mullah Nanai), Mullah Sulaiman Agha, and Mullah Abdul Samad Sani. The official requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss such sensitive deliberations with the media.
“The aim is to bring back influential Taliban leaders to help convince insurgents on the ground to lay down their weapons,” he said. “It will also help convey the message that we are sincere about reaching a political deal [with the insurgents].”
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban diplomat and senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council, says Kabul wants to use the release of detainees to build confidence with Pakistan while also trying to oblige the Taliban.
“I don’t think the detained Taliban leaders could directly help end violence; however, I believe this would bridge the gap between the government and the Taliban,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Kabul is not only seeking the release of Taliban detainees. It also wants to free Afghan and Western hostages held by the insurgent group.
Mohammad Amin Waqad, deputy head of the Afghan High Peace Council, says Kabul and Islamabad are working on a mechanism for exchanging detainees because no such agreement exists.
“If Pakistan sincerely wants to cooperate in peace talks, then freeing Taliban prisoners should not be a problem,” he told Radio Mashaal. “On the other hand, the Taliban also have people in their custody. For confidence-building measures, some people could be released first, which could then be followed by releasing high-profile detainees,” he said.
The current Taliban hostages include a Western couple, Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlin Coleman. They were kidnapped in Afghanistan’s central Wardak Province in 2012. Last year, the Taliban abducted an American and an Australian from Kabul, Kevin King and Timothy John Weeks, who taught at the American University of Afghanistan.
While Islamabad has not elaborated on the detainee exchanges, a statement by the Pakistani military’s media wing said Islamabad and Kabul agreed on joint efforts at an October 1 meeting between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
“Both sides agreed on the framework for working toward a peaceable environment conducive to the political process essential for enduring Afghan peace and regional stability,” the statement noted.
The Afghan National Security Council noted that Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif discussed the release of Taliban detainees at a September 21 meeting.
“The two sides also discussed [militant] sanctuaries in Pakistan and the exchange of top five Taliban leaders detained in Pakistan,” the council said in a September 28 statement.
Talking to Pakistan’s GEO TV, Asif confirmed Kabul had provided a list of 78 Taliban leaders either in Pakistani custody or reportedly living in the country. Earlier this year, the Pakistani military gave Kabul a similar list of 76 Pakistani Taliban militants allegedly hiding in Afghanistan.
The senior Afghan security official who requested anonymity says the prisoner swap is part of proposals both sides are working on to end the war in Afghanistan.
“These proposals include access to detainees, releasing prisoners, military coordination including intelligence sharing, and better border management,” he said.
The official said both sides agreed to try to involve the Taliban in peace talks. “Pakistanis will reach out to the Taliban, who could be influenced by them, and Afghans will reach out to others who are willing to work with Kabul,” he noted.
Radio Mashaal has learned that former Taliban diplomat Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef is now in Qatar on behalf of the Afghan government. He is meeting Taliban representatives at the group’s political office in the country’s capital, Doha.
“We are going to ask whether the Taliban want to work as a political party. If yes, we could work on making that happens,” Waqad said.
The new diplomatic push to reset relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan comes after U.S. President Donald Trump called on Islamabad to stop supporting the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” Trump said in his August 21 speech outlining his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.
Islamabad now appears to be striving to offset the pressure from Washington and NATO’s demands over militant sanctuaries. The country’s foreign minister, Asif, is keen on telling Western capitals that his country now sees vital interests in peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"Ensuring security in Afghanistan is critical for the [South Asian] region," he told a think tank audience in Washington on October 5. "We will be the biggest beneficiary of peace in Afghanistan."
Ayaz Wazir, a former Pakistani diplomat, says a detainee exchange could help boost confidence between Kabul and Islamabad.
“This could lead to concrete results to curb violence in the region,” he said.