The announcement came during a two day visit to Islamabad by the Afghanistan High Peace Council, a body authorized by Kabul to hold talks with the Taliban. The Peace Council met with Pakistan's president and prime minister – and, crucially, the country's top general – in the first such high-level meetings since the former head of the council was assassinated last year.
Regional analysts have long suspected that Pakistan's security establishment scuttled the Afghan peace process when it rounded up a group of Taliban leaders in 2010. The arrested Taliban included spiritual leader Mullah Omar's right-hand man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had been in quiet negotiations with the Afghan government, possibly behind Pakistan's back. More hard-line leaders opposed to peace appeared to be spared from the roundup, giving rise to suspicions that elements of the Pakistan's military and intelligence community wanted the Taliban to keep fighting.
Pakistani officials have denied that the arrests were an attempt to target the peace process, pointing out some of the raids were conducted jointly with the US, a key pusher of talks.
Pakistan's Foreign Office explained the today's decision was taken "to support the peace and reconciliation process and in response to the requests of the Afghan government."
Some observers in Pakistan say the release shows that the Pakistani security establishment has changed course and is now willing to fully endorse a negotiated settlement to the Afghanistan war. If such a key player were indeed on board, odds would improve for a stabilized Afghanistan and a peaceful US exit.
“We are seeing that finally everyone in Pakistan is on the same page and thinks that a power sharing formula [of which Taliban will be a part of] for the future Kabul government is better," says Fahd Husain, a senior columnist who accompanied the Pakistani prime minister on an earlier visit to Kabul that laid the groundwork for today's announcement.
The detailed 12-point joint statement, which talks about increasing cooperation between the two countries also urged "Taliban and other armed groups to sever all links with Al Qaeda, and other international terror networks" and emphasized that "Pakistan and Afghanistan will work closely with other international partners to remove the names from the UN sanctions list of the potential negotiators amongst Taliban and other groups to enable them to participate in peace talks."
However, it is still unclear which Taliban leaders will be released, according to a senior Afghan official who is part of the dialogue with Pakistani authorities but not authorized to speak to media.
“This was a demand we had put up to the Pakistani authorities long ago and they finally have agreed to release some Taliban leaders,” the official says.
Some Pakistani analysts urged that the details of who gets released may be disappointing.
“It is not realistic to expect a major breakthrough through this move since [the] Afghan government was demanding the release of ‘senior’ Taliban leaders who would be able to control the insurgency, but according to my information, Pakistan will not be releasing important Taliban commanders as yet,” says Rahimullah Yousafzai, a security analyst, who is also editor of an English daily newspaper in Peshawar.
Still, Pakistan is not the only obstacle to the peace process, says Mr. Yousafzai. The fact that Mullah Omar, the head of Taliban government before its fall in 2001, is still wanted by the US is a big deterrent in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
“There is still lack of clarity from Obama’s administration about what it wants with regards to the peace process. And just like not putting Mullah Omar off that [wanted] list, the Haqqani network, an important ally of the Taliban, was recently put on the US list of designated terrorist organizations. The US should take steps to involve these elements. Without that, there will not be much headway in the peace process,” says Yousufzai.