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Pakistan frees top Taliban prisoner to move Afghan peace talks forward

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s security forces released a top-ranking Taliban prisoner Saturday in an effort to expedite the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was arrested in 2010 during a raid by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence services, was freed shortly before noon under orders from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif was responding to a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Pakistan help foster talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban before the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces next year.

The two leaders had met in Islamabad in late August, and Karzai reportedly asked that Baradar be freed.

Baradar was considered the second-ranking Taliban leader when he was captured in the secret operation, which was designed by U.S. officials to gather intelligence about the Taliban network. He is believed to have played a key role in organizing resistance after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but is regarded as a moderate in the organization who had signaled a willingness to engage in peace talks before his arrest.

Baradar “is now a free man,” a Pakistani security official said on the condition of anonymity. “Baradar is a senior Taliban leader, and it is hoped his release would have a positive impact on Afghanistan’s reconciliation process.”

Pakistani officials declined to say where Baradar was headed, but a Pakistani intelligence official said he expects Baradar will stay in Pakistan for now.

Under U.N. sanctions against the Taliban, the group’s leaders are not free to cross international borders.

Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the key is not whether Baradar is delivered to Afghan security forces but that he is “safe, secure and accessible with a reachable address so that the Afghan High Peace Council can reach out to him.”

Even if Baradar does try to take an active role in peace talks, analysts say it’s unclear whether he still has enough support in the Taliban to be a major factor in negotiations.

The Obama administration has also been eager for Afghanistan to explore a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to try bring stability to the country as U.S. forces depart.

With help from Pakistan’s government, the White House tried to arrange tentative talks between Karzai’s government and the Taliban in Qatar this summer.

But the talks never took place because of a dispute over whether the Taliban should be able to fly its flag over its temporary offices in Doha.