KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's top diplomat will press Pakistan Friday to free more Taliban detainees to help coax the militant group into peace negotiations to end the 11-year-old war, an official said.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul will make the request during a one-day visit to Islamabad, according to an Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Rasoul's agenda ahead of the minister's talks with high-ranking Pakistani officials.
The cooperation of Pakistan, which has longstanding ties to the Taliban, is seen as key to jumpstarting the stalled Afghan peace process that has made little headway since it began several years ago, hobbled by distrust among the major players, including the United States. The Afghan and U.S. governments accuse Islamabad of backing insurgents — an allegation Pakistan denies — and say many militant leaders are hiding in the country.
With Afghan presidential elections and the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops looming in 2014, Afghanistan and its international allies are trying to push a peace process with the Taliban to bring an end to the conflict.
Afghanistan needs Pakistan's help in reaching out to top Taliban leaders, but still insists that peace talks be led by Afghans, saying it will fight those who try to interfere.
Earlier this month, Pakistan released nine Taliban figures in a move that Afghanistan said was a positive, first step that showed Islamabad's support for the peace process.
The official said that those released, including some senior Taliban leaders, are believed to still be in Pakistan. Afghanistan hopes the freed militants will play a constructive role in the peace process, the official said, while acknowledging that it is too soon to know what role, if any, they will hold.
Afghan officials have long sought the release of Taliban's former deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was captured in Pakistan in 2010 because he reportedly was having secret talks with the Afghans.
While it's unclear whether the Taliban are interested in negotiating peace, the official maintained that there are indeed key Taliban figures who support a political process to end the violence, but that some of them are afraid to establish direct contact with the Afghan government because some of those who did in the past were killed or detained.
Afghanistan wants Pakistan to encourage Taliban leaders to join the Afghan-led peace process and allow Taliban negotiators to travel to third countries for talks without detaining them or putting pressure on their families, the official said.
Rasoul also will discuss obtaining closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia, which has expressed support for the peace process, as well as the implementation of a transit trade agreement with Pakistan and the issue of refugees, the official said.
Islamabad has threatened to expel undocumented Afghan refugees from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwestern Pakistan by the end of this year.
Informal contacts have been established with Taliban officials in recent years, but so far no formal negotiations have begun.
Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul and an expert on Taliban issues, told The Associated Press in a recent interview that about two months ago he met informally in Qatar with several Taliban figures, including Tayyab Agha, a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former deputy at two ministries during the Taliban regime.
"From the talks that I had with them, I found out that the Taliban are really interested with talks and negotiations — not with Afghan government but instead with U.S. and political opposition groups of the Afghan government and even tribal elders," he said, emphasizing that he was not acting as a representative of the Afghan government.
If any negotiations begin, they would be between the U.S. and the Taliban, he said.
"If there was a good result from that, then the Afghan government could be involved," he said.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.