KABUL - In the cloistered circles of the Taliban high command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar had no equal. As military chief of the hardline Islamic movement that once ruled Afghanistan and was ousted by a US.-led alliance, he oversaw the campaign of ambushes and roadside bombings that proved his fighters could threaten the most advanced armies.

When the leader was caught in the Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010, some Afghan officials hoped the magnetism he forged in war would persuade his former comrades to start talking peace. Indeed, news that Islamabad had allowed Afghan officials to visit Baradar two months ago sparked speculation in both countries of the prospects for a settlement.

Instead, Pakistan‘s refusal to hand him over to Afghanistan symbolises one of the biggest obstacles to the negotiations.

Any move to repatriate Baradar would raise Afghan hopes that Pakistan is willing to play a genuinely constructive role and open the door to other prominent insurgents.

“Releasing Mullah Baradar would encourage other Taliban leaders to embrace reconciliation,” Ismail Qasemyar, an adviser to Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, told Reuters. “It would be a huge symbolic step.”

Members of the Council, who are charged with reaching out to insurgents, aim to visit Islamabad in the next few weeks to make a fresh plea for Pakistan to allow Baradar to return to Kabul as a guest of the Afghan government.

With the United States and its allies due to withdraw the bulk of their combat forces by the end of 2014, pressure is mounting on President Hamid Karzai to start meaningful negotiations with the Taliban and prevent violence spiralling.

But there is no guarantee Pakistan will agree to release Baradar, or that he retains enough influence to play a decisive role.

“We are fully cooperating with Afghanistan in whatever they are asking for the peace process,” Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in a recent interview.

“For developing peace in Afghanistan, we are giving every kind of help. We have given access.”

He did not comment further on the subject.

The Afghan government believes Baradar is more amenable to dialogue than many of his comrades.

In the months before his arrest, Baradar authorised contacts with United Nations representatives to explore the possibility of dialogue, according to former UN and Taliban officials.

Afghan officials believe Pakistan detained him as part of a broader strategy to retain a veto over any eventual settlement in Afghanistan.

More cautious voices argue that negotiations will only work if Karzai broadens his strategy of lobbying prominent insurgents to defect into a wider process to address the roots of Afghanistan’s conflict.

Pakistan, for its part, will have to radically rethink the terms of its long-standing relationship with the Taliban before it can consider meeting Afghan demands.

HARD WORK

Taliban folklore has it that Baradar was present on the day in 1994 when Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader, launched his campaign to cleanse Afghanistan of warlords.

Their friendship bolstered Baradar’s stature during the Taliban’s march on Kabul and its 1996-2001 reign.

The Taliban government collapsed after the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan for harbouring al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

Baradar would later emerge as Mullah Omar’s second-in-command, translating spiritual guidance into orders as the Taliban insurgency gathered strength.

Baradar was captured in early 2010 in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in a joint action between Pakistani intelligence officers and the CIA.

Some argue that more than two years in detention have eroded his sway over an evolving insurgency.

The Haqqani network, which has used havens in Pakistan to launch attacks on Kabul, is showing signs of growing independence from the Taliban hierarchy.

And a blistering campaign of US night raids on Taliban commanders has weakened Mullah Omar’s chain of command.

What does seem certain is that Baradar’s return would give Karzai’s outreach more credibility among Pashtuns, the community that dominates southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgency is strongest.

“If Mullah Baradar joins the government, 80 per cent of the problem with the Taliban will be solved,” said Haji Obaidullah Barakzai, a lawmaker from Uruzgan, the southern province where Baradar was born.

STRATEGY UNDER FIRE

The Afghan government has focused on luring individual Taliban leaders to abandon the insurgency, rather than laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive peace process that might satisfy the country’s many constituencies.

“It’s not enough just to bring former Taliban commanders to Kabul,” said Haji Mangal Hussain, a former adviser to Karzai. “The most important factor for bringing peace is to improve the quality of the Afghan government.”

With Karzai due to step down at elections due by 2014, and his administration exposed to allegations of nepotism and corruption, many fear he lacks the legitimacy to serve as guarantor for a viable power-sharing deal.

The Taliban’s traditional enemies from northern Afghanistan, who wield considerable power in Kabul, fear Karzai may betray them at the negotiating table.

Taliban movement, who doubt their fighters can overrun Kabul, want to start talks now to spare Afghanistan the risk of a new civil war.