Kabul, Afghanistan - When Pakistan's foreign ministry announced the release of seven Afghan Taliban fighters in their custody, a foreign ministry official in Kabul called it a "positive, but small step” towards peace with the armed group.
For others in Afghanistan, however, Saturday's release of Mansoor Dadullah, Said Wali, Abdul Manan, Karim Agha, Sher Afzal, Gul Muhammad and Muhammad Zai was immediately met with scepticism.
Once it was announced the men would be released but not sent back to Afghanistan, initial questions of their identities were overtaken by how these men could advance peace in Afghanistan from Pakistan, a nation many Afghans consider a safe haven for Afghanistan's chief armed opposition group.
Karzai is not sure he can trust Pakistan, but he is desperate to assert a positive legacy for himself.
Characterising the seven as largely "old and ailing”, Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist, said he would be surprised if the freed men returned to the battlefield. Still, for some in Afghanistan and the West, there is a fear if they cannot pick up a gun, "these men can dial a phone”.
Having seen former fighters, including thwarted suicide bombers, being recaptured several times in the past, Mahmoud Saikal, a former Afghan foreign ministry official, told Al Jazeera the freed men should be required to "sign a document” stating they will pursue their opposition through peaceful means, rather than "guns and bombs”.
That is precisely what one source in contact with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar - the group that Washington and Kabul had hoped would take the lead in negotiations - fears.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to go on the record, the source accused Karzai of "playing a dangerous game” with Taliban leaders, some under the influence of Pakistan's security services.
The source familiar with US intelligence reports said Washington was watching the situation. He described the releases as a deal made between Islamabad and Kabul, so the beleaguered Afghan president can boost his political fortunes.
"Karzai is not sure he can trust Pakistan, but he is desperate to assert a positive legacy for himself,” he said.
But the move is also precarious for the Afghan leader. For a president nearing the end of his term, Yusufzai said the political cost of taking any action that would make him look "as if he is taking orders from Pakistan” could hurt Karzai's reputation.
Yusufzai said Saturday's releases were part of a continuing effort by the governments of both countries towards achieving peace in Afghanistan.
"For some time, Pakistan has been of the opinion that there should be negotiations between the two sides in Afghanistan,” Yusufzai said.
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The seven released were predominantly "lower-level” detainees compared to 26 other Taliban freed by Pakistan so far in 2013, he said.
Some observers criticized the latest release, saying Pakistan didn't spring any high-level Taliban that would help Karzai's government achieve peace with the group, and that Islamabad failed to send the detainees to Afghanistan.
"Pakistan has once again demonstrated that they do not recognise the Afghan government as a sovereign state,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, an Afghan human rights campaigner.
Borhan Osman from the Afghanistan Analysts Network agreed. Speaking to Al Jazeera he said the seven men were hardly the vanguard of the Taliban movement. Two, he said, have come under suspicion within the militia for relations with foreigners - including Pakistani intelligence - and "not following orders”.
Osman said many in the Afghan government will likely question the value of those let go, particularly since a senior Taliban leader requested by Kabul to be freed - Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar - wasn't released by Pakistan. Baradar is believed to be second in command only behind Mullah Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader.
"We expect additional and more significant steps by Pakistan in the future, steps that Pakistani leaders can easily take if they so decide, including the release of Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban leaders currently in Pakistani jails,” an Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said.
|President Hamid Karzai and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif [AFP]
But since Baradar wasn't freed, the Afghan government may be left to believe that "Pakistan is not helping in the way we want, but the way it pleases, just to show they do something”, said Osman.
Baradar's release would be particularly important to Karzai himself. "The president could use it to curry favour among the Popalzai tribe, from which they both hail,” said Osman.
Sayeed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander in south-central Uruzgan province, praised Saturday's releases as solid step towards peace in Afghanistan.
The former Taliban commander, imprisoned in Kabul for six years himself, said he is "optimistic”, but the releases must be part of larger commitments by both governments.
"It will take time for people to embrace peace,” Sayeed Agha said, warning if Islamabad or Kabul begin reneging on peace efforts, those freed could easily return to the battlefield.
Despite criticism, Sayeed Agha and Yusufzai said Islamabad's decision not to send the detainees to Afghanistan was a strategic one.
In a bid to be seen as a mediator in the Afghan conflict, Islamabad purposely decided not to force the seven men - who have now made their home in Pakistan - to return to Afghanistan.
"In a peace process you can't do anything by force,” Sayeed Agha said.
Pakistan, said Yusufzai, does not want to anger the Afghan Taliban "and risk progress towards peace” made so far being lost.
We can't afford to continue to address the byproducts of the issues, while ignoring the central issue - trust.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar - a member of the High Peace Council, the 120-person group tasked with negotiating with the armed opposition in Afghanistan - said he first heard about the releases through the media.
Though Qasemyar said he hoped the seven Taliban released would work to serve as "social workers for peace and reconciliation”, the source in contact with the Doha-based Taliban said Kabul must be more assertive.
"The Taliban are heavily influenced by Pakistan, but you can't assume they will listen every time. The Afghan government should have made a clear request to have them handed over to Kabul,” he said.
Ashraf, the human rights campaigner, said she worries the release is the latest misstep in a process that has failed to address the needs of the nation.
What Afghanistan truly needs, said Ashraf, is "rule of law and an end to the culture of impunity”, something she says will not come from the High Peace Council and "its internationally-funded schemes”.
Saikal, the former Afghan foreign ministry official, said a long-standing "trust deficit” between the two neighbours overshadows any value gained from the Taliban releases.
Calling the move a "superficial” step with "very little” impact over the larger peace process, Saikal called for a direct dialogue between Kabul and Islamabad, one that would address the belief that Pakistan arms, trains and shelters Afghanistan's armed opposition.
"We can't afford to continue to address the byproducts of the issues, while ignoring the central issue - trust.”
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye