ISLAMABAD/KABUL (Reuters) - A former Afghan Taliban commander, who Pakistan said had been released at the weekend, is being held under virtual house arrest by his Pakistani handlers who watch his movements and listen to his phone calls, an arrangement likely to undermine his role as a peacemaker.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in Pakistan in 2010 and has since emerged as a figure Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States believe could help persuade his former comrades to lay down arms and talk peace after the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan next year.
Baradar was once a close friend of reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who gave him his nom de guerre, “Baradar”, or “brother”, and he belongs to the same tribe as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry announced last week that Baradar would be released on Saturday but as of Thursday, he was still being kept in a safe house in Karachi, Pakistani sources told Reuters.
Afghanistan, which suspects its neighbor of trying to influence its internal affairs, wants Baradar to be handed over.
But Pakistan’s powerful military, with its long history of supporting the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan, appears determined to control efforts to end more than 10 years of war.
Even at the time of Baradar’s arrest in 2010, Afghan officials suspected Pakistan had captured him simply because he was trying to broker a peace deal without involving Islamabad.
“First they arrested him to keep him from talking to others. Now they’re releasing him presumably so he can talk to others,” said a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad.
“It’s a reversal but the commonality is that in both cases, Pakistan decides who he talks to and who he keeps away from.”
One Pakistani intelligence source with direct knowledge of Baradar’s movements said he had reached out to several Taliban figures - at the request of his minders.
“Baradar has been instructed by security personnel guarding him to make calls to try to persuade the Taliban to bring an end to the bloodshed and enter into meaningful dialogue,” he said.
The official said a laptop and a satellite telephone confiscated from Baradar during his arrest in 2010 had been returned and that a group of 10 security men kept an eye on him at the house where Baradar occupied the first floor.
Pakistan made the announcement of his release just before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to the United States in what was seen by many as Islamabad emphasizing its readiness to help.
Baradar himself has not publicly commented on the events and it is unclear how committed he is to embark on a peace mission. Deals with the Taliban have broken down in the past.
Many believe war-hardened insurgents are also likely to be suspicious of a man seen as close to Pakistani authorities.
“It is better if we have Mullah Baradar in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Anwar Esaaqzai, a senior member of the High Peace Council, the body established by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to pursue peace with the insurgents.
“If that’s not possible, then he must be handed over to a third country away from Pakistan’s control and influence.”
Another Pakistani intelligence official privy to Baradar’s movements told Reuters in Islamabad that he had made several phone calls to Taliban members.
“He has reached out to his colleagues in Afghanistan, Turkey and the United States and discussed his role in the peace process,” the official said.
“At least in the foreseeable future, it seems that he will be making contacts from his current location.”
Pakistani officials would not comment on the nature of Baradar’s activities. A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said he had not heard of any contacts.
“We have no confirmation of whom he is talking to,” said the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman. “Nevertheless, now that his detention has ended, we hope he will play a role to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
Three years of being shuttled around Pakistan from one safe house to another have no doubt weakened Baradar’s rapport with senior Taliban leaders including his former mentor, the one-eyed Omar.
“For all practical purposes, whatever knowledge and influence he had is probably obsolete now,” said one Pakistani government official.
And yet some believe there is hope. The fact that he is a Pashtun and belongs to the same powerful Popalzai subtribe as Karzai is also a plus.
“I believe that Mullah Baradar is key to Afghan peace, because there was so much in common between Mullah Omar and Mullah Baradar,” said Haji Agha Lalai, an influential tribesman in southern Afghanistan. “The only person Mullah Omar won’t ignore is Mullah Baradar, but first we need to know where he is, and what his intentions are regarding peace.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional Reporting by Asim Tanveer; Sarwar Amani in Kandahar, Syed Raza Hassan in Islamabad and Dylan Welch in Kabul; Editing by Nick Macfie