Freed Taliban fighters return to insurgency

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ISLAMABAD -- At least half of the Afghan Taliban recently freed from Pakistani prisons have rejoined the insurgency, a Pakistani intelligence official says, throwing into question the value of such goodwill gestures that the Afghan government requested to restart a flagging peace process.

A senior Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could talk freely confirmed that "some" newly freed Taliban have returned to the battlefield.

The development underscores the difficulties in reaching a political deal with the Taliban before the end of 2014, when NATO and U.S. troops are scheduled to have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many Taliban released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay also have gone underground.

Despite some recent signs from the Taliban that they are willing to share power and want to avoid a civil war, the militants may well be playing for time until 2014. That is also when the Afghans are to elect a new president to succeed Hamid Karzai, whom the insurgents consider a U.S. puppet.

The Taliban have long refused to speak directly with Mr. Karzai or his government. They have said they will negotiate only with the U.S., which has held secret talks with them in the Gulf state of Qatar. But at Mr. Karzai's insistence, the U.S. has since sought to have the insurgents speak directly with the Afghan government. Western officials privately say the talks have so far gone no further.

At the request of the Afghan High Peace Council late last year, Pakistan freed 24 prisoners to coax a reluctant Taliban leadership to talk peace directly with the Karzai government, according to Ismail Qasemyar, a senior peace council official. The freed prisoners are all Afghan Taliban, who are battling NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Many of these fighters use neighboring Pakistan as a home base, particularly in winter months.

But the prisoner releases appears to have backfired, with the intelligence official saying about half have returned to the Taliban. The outcome is further testing an already-troubled relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and drawing U.S. complaints that Pakistan has not done enough to keep track of the freed Taliban.

Frustrated by the criticism, Islamabad said it lacks resources to track them, and that no request was made to do so or to hand them over to the Afghan government. Afghan authorities have also released Taliban prisoners from their own jails, occasionally over U.S. military objections, and have since lost track of many.

When Pakistan has arrested Afghan Taliban fighters in recent years, it has often come in response to U.S. pressure or assistance. The Pakistani military is far more interested in carrying out offensives against Pakistani Taliban, who have declared war on that country and are responsible for tens of thousands of Pakistani civilian and about 4,000 Pakistani military deaths.

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