ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan is set to release the Afghan Taliban’s former second-in-command to help facilitate the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan, a Pakistani official told NBC News on Tuesday.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was close to the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who gave him his nom de guerre "Baradar" or "brother." He was captured in Pakistan in 2010.
"We have decided in principle to release Mullah Baradar and he will be released at an appropriate time," Pakistan foreign office spokesman Azaz Chaudry said. "He will be released soon, but will not be handed over to the Afghan government.”
He would not elaborate on when exactly the release would come. Seven members of the Afghan Taliban have been let go by the Pakistanis in the last week.
Baradar's release is key to Afghanistan's efforts to kick-start the stalled peace process as NATO prepares to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and anxiety grows over what will happen to the country once international troops leave.
Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has spent years calling for Baradar’s release because he believes the former number-two is more open to dialogue than many of his comrades.
"Obviously, President Karzai wanted us to do this. This was one of Karzai’s requests,” Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, told NBC News. “It’s a confidence building measure from our part towards the Afghan government."
Aziz added that the release was part of Pakistan's "strategy for reconciliation in Afghanistan.We are trying to persuade the Taliban to speak to the Afghan High Peace Council, though there is no progress yet."
American officials in Kabul declined to comment on the imminent release.
Michael Keating, consulting professor at Chatham House, said the timing of the release of a major Taliban leader on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is “very odd, but I would be very surprised if it has anything to do with Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S.
“My understanding is that his release is symbolic, and important, because it is a signal that Pakistan does not want to get in the way of efforts to get a reconciliation started [between Afghanistan and the Taliban].”
Senior partner with the security firm Flashpoint Intelligence and an NBC consultant on terrorism Evan Kohlmann agreed the timing of Baradar’s release was not significant.
“I do not think it’s deliberate,” he said. “It is largely to do with politics between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The timing is just a coincidence, but it is difficult to say whether it will have lasting repercussions with the U.S.”
Kohlmann added that the Taliban identified Baradar as "one of the leaders of our movement" in a breathless profile of him calling readers to “Get to Know Sheikh Mullah Baradar” in the group's official Al-Somod magazine in November 2007.
Aziz, Pakistan's top diplomat, said the release was very significant. "Of course, his release is important. He was the Taliban number two. He was one of the most important men in that movement and government."
Sharif will arrive in Turkey on Sept. 16 for an official visit that is expected to include discussions about Afghanistan with his Turkish counterpart.
NBC News' Jamieson Lesko, Alexander Smith, Wajahat S. Khan and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published September 10 2013, 8:06 AM