Last month, the Pakistani government quietly let seven captured Taliban combatants walk out of prison, ostensibly to breathe new life into peace talks. This was the second such release of Taliban prisoners in two months and one of many that has occurred over the past year.
In total, Islamabad has reportedly released almost 40 Taliban combatants at the request of Afghan officials – including a senior Taliban commander, Mansoor Dadullah, and one of the Taliban’s founding members, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. While these prisoner releases have gone largely unnoticed in the United States, they are important reminders of broader problems with ongoing attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. The Taliban get something they want – legitimacy and the release of senior leaders – and provide nothing in return, slighting the Afghan public in the process.
The biggest flaw in this approach to negotiations is its misguided faith that releasing Taliban prisoners is an effective “confidence-building” measure. Though Pakistani and Afghan officials insist that these deals help lay the groundwork for future negotiations, neither historical precedent nor recent experience support such wishful thinking.
Yes, the early release of political prisoners has been used in other countries, during other conflicts – when there is already a ceasefire or peace deal in place, not when there is no deal in sight. Over a decade ago, the British released hundreds of paramilitary prisoners, including mass killers and bombers affiliated with the Irish Republican Army; but it was done under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which demanded a “complete and unequivocal” ceasefire before the prisoners could go home.
When the Israeli government released 26 Palestinian prisoners in August and another 26 last month, it was part of a formal agreement brokered by the US that launched negotiations with the Palestinian Authority after a five-year hiatus. Even so, the pace of future releases is conditional on progress in the talks.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, senior Taliban prisoners are being released, time and again, before the Taliban makes any concessions and without any formal agreement under discussion. The Taliban are literally getting something for nothing. The idea that releasing senior combatants like Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will “jump start” the troubled peace process is likewise illogical. Since his capture in February 2010, there has been significant turnover in Taliban leadership; it’s doubtful Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s former deputy still has enough influence to push the group’s newer, often more radical commanders toward a peace agreement.
Mr. Baradar’s release also undermines the position of Afghan, Pakistani, and international negotiators, showing their Taliban counterparts that concessions aren’t necessary to get what they want. What’s more, the conflicting reports about what has happened to Baradar since his release – the Taliban claim he has not yet been returned to his family despite Pakistani reports that he was set free in late September – directly challenge any assertion that such acts build trust between the parties involved.
It’s also likely these “strategic releases” will worsen the local security situation. Neither Pakistani nor Afghan officials intend to monitor most ex-prisoners or take other security measures to see that the former insurgents don’t return to the battlefield. In fact, those released from Pakistani prisons are not even sent back to Afghanistan; they are simply let go in Pakistan, within easy reach of the tribal regions the Taliban calls home. It’s not surprising that none of these ex-prisoners has thus far joined the reconciliation process and, even more concerning, many of the prisoners freed were reported to immediately take up arms again.
Herein lies the most significant problem with these ongoing prisoner releases: They make the Afghan people the biggest losers of all. To many locals, the deals are yet another example of corruption and betrayal by the West and by their own government, which has encouraged Pakistan to release these prisoners. As one young Afghan told me, over lunch on the outskirts of Kabul, his government calls for the release of “famous” people but “sinless” Afghans stay in jail – because they are not important nor do they have money to pay the officials holding keys to their freedom. It’s no surprise to Afghans that President Hamid Karzai continues to advocate on behalf of Baradar – even after his reported release: They both come from the same sub-tribe.
When Washington silently condones these releases – or, as some reports suggest, pushes for more "strategic releases" and considers freeing senior Taliban held by US forces at Guantanamo – it alienates the Afghan people and undermines the chance that any negotiated settlement will have widespread local support.
To avoid this, future prisoner releases should become part of the negotiation process – an outcome of talks with the Taliban, not a prerequisite – and former Taliban prisoners should be included in ex-combatant reintegration programs.
Further, just as representatives of the Afghan public should be part of broader discussions about peace talks, the local perspective about prisoner releases must be considered – both in terms of how the decisions are made and how the releases themselves are explained. Such small steps can help avoid a situation where the Taliban continue to win big while the Afghans – and the world – lose more hope in the possibility of a long-term, sustainable peace.
Marisa Porges, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Departments of Defense and Treasury, is an international security program fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her most recent research in Afghanistan, in 2011, focused on Afghan prisons and reintegration efforts for ex-Taliban combatants.