By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The arrest of a senior Taliban leader in Pakistan this week underlines a push by the government in Islamabad to pressure the insurgents to open talks with the Afghan government, Taliban officials said.
Hafiz Mohibullah, a senior military commander who has been closely involved in talks with the United States, was arrested in Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan, at the weekend but was subsequently released.
“After his arrest, Pakistani authorities started raids on many other houses of the Taliban movement, their friends and commanders in different places in Pakistan,” said one senior Taliban leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban confirmed that Mohibullah had been released on Wednesday and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said he was safe.
The move came as talks between Taliban representatives and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad hit a stumbling block after the insurgents issued a statement on Tuesday threatening to stall peace talks.
Khalilzad, who arrived in Kabul on Tuesday, was due to meet Taliban representatives in Qatar last week but the meeting was cancelled.
The Taliban have so far refused to talk to the Afghan government, which they dismiss as a puppet regime put in place by foreign powers.
According to Taliban sources, the dispute highlights a split that has emerged among countries with an interest in the region, with Pakistan and the United States pushing the Taliban to open talks with Kabul and other countries, including Iran, supporting the Taliban’s stance.
“Iran and Qatar are supporting Taliban’s way but Pakistan is saying what the Afghan government and the U.S. wanted,” he said.
Officials in Islamabad say Pakistan is keenly aware that Afghanistan will continue to need huge amounts of foreign aid to keep its shattered economy afloat after any peace settlement and have been working closely with the United States.
Islamabad fears that any hasty withdrawal of foreign forces could trigger an uncontrolled collapse of the Afghan government, leaving a vacuum that could send tens of thousands of refugees across the border.
The Afghan government regularly accuses Pakistan of providing support to the Taliban. Pakistani officials deny this but say they have a degree of influence which they have been using to try to persuade the movement to accept peace talks.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Darren Schuettler)