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Taliban freed by Pakistan pose new dangers for NATO, Afghan troops

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Pakistan's release late last year of several imprisoned Taliban officials and fighters, which it advertised as a good-faith effort to help bring peace to Afghanistan, is now prompting questions about whether the gesture has yielded anything but potential new dangers for NATO and Afghan troops.

American, Afghan and Pakistani officials say they believe some of the freed Islamist movement members have rejoined their colleagues waging war against Western troops and the coalition-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

With its long-standing links to Afghan Taliban insurgents, Pakistan has a vital role in nudging them to the table as the United States winds down its involvement in the 11-year war in Afghanistan. But Pakistan's handling of the prisoner release once again subverted the trust of the Afghans, who were supposed to receive the captives and keep tabs on them to lower the risk of any returning to terrorist havens in Pakistan.

The whereabouts and even the number of ex-prisoners have remained murky since their release in two batches in mid-November and late December by Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as part of a road map drawn up by the Afghan High Peace Council to build the confidence of the militants.

Despite an earlier agreement, the ISI failed to consult with the council when it set many of the captives free. On Friday, however, the Pakistani government pledged to coordinate future Taliban releases with the council, in a belated admission that it had blindsided the Afghans.

The U.S. military is keenly interested in the former captives' whereabouts and is trying to track down any who have returned to Afghanistan bent on jihad — or, alternately, it wants to identify those participating in the reconciliation process so they won't be targeted.

“It's all a black hole,” said one U.S. official last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A Pakistani security official confirmed that 18 men were freed and described them as junior to midlevel members of the Islamic movement, including field commanders and foot soldiers.

“Some have gone back to their old ways, with their old friends,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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