By Missy Ryan and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's top peace negotiator urged Pakistan on Wednesday to free Taliban prisoners and push militant leaders into peace negotiations, saying Islamabad must do more to help bring an end to the 10-year Afghan war.
Salahuddin Rabbani, in his first Western media interview since taking his job in April, said he hoped to revive a process many Afghan and Western officials see as the best chance of restoring calm before a 2014 pullout of foreign combat troops.
Rabbani was chosen to replace his father, Burhanuddin, the revered former president and anti-Soviet fighter killed last year by a suicide bomber that some Afghan officials believe was dispatched from Pakistan. Islamabad denies any involvement.
Rabbani, a soft-spoken, bespectacled former diplomat who may struggle to command the same veneration his father enjoyed, spoke ahead of visits to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where he will discuss Afghan government efforts to jumpstart talks offering an alternative to a persistent insurgency.
"Pakistan can do a lot in bringing (the Taliban leadership) to the negotiating table," Rabbani said, speaking in the same heavily guarded, pastel-colored home where his father was killed last year by a man described as a Taliban envoy.
"They have influence," the head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council said. "Pakistan is the key to the whole process."
The Obama administration's hopes of establishing peace talks between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban this year faded after the militants' reclusive leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan, suspended participation in preliminary discussions run by U.S. diplomats.
That setback has focused attention on nascent efforts by the Afghan government to open its own channels with insurgent intermediaries, despite the fact the Taliban says it will not talk to what it deems an illegitimate "puppet" regime.
Pakistan, Rabbani said, must finally take action in areas where it has the potential to catalyze a process that has moved so slowly that critics suggest it is doomed.
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He said Pakistan should free Taliban prisoners such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the movement who is described as No. 2 to its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar.
"By releasing them or giving them to Afghan custody, that would help the process," Rabbani said, suggesting he would redouble previous Afghan pleas to release Baradar and other Taliban who have supported peace talks with Kabul.
Afghan officials believe Baradar, a respected Pashtun tribal elder, could play an important role in convincing the Taliban to enter talks on Afghanistan's future.
In 2009, he was reported to have taken steps toward opening peace talks without the consent of a Pakistani government that has a long history of seeking to secure influence over Afghan leaders. Baradar was arrested in Karachi in early 2010.
Pakistan says it supports a peace agreement, and points out that it allowed some Taliban to travel to the Gulf this year. But it says wider support is required among Afghans before real peace talks can take place, while both the U.S. and Taliban positions are plagued by ambiguity.
The Afghan government is pursuing possible peace leads in Qatar, where Washington has proposed sending Afghan detainees and where the Taliban could open an office; the United Arab Emirates; Saudi Arabia; and Turkey, where former Taliban finance minister Jan Agha Mutassim has signaled the group may be more open to peace talks than it once was, Rabbani said.
A conference in Paris this month also brought former Taliban together with Afghan politicians.
Rabbani said the Afghan government believed the Taliban, grappling with dissent between front-line militants who support a possible peace deal and those who oppose it, is now more open to direct talks with the Karzai government.
The Taliban may also be digesting the impact of an agreement signed in May that outlined a long-term U.S. aid and adviser presence in Afghanistan.
And while most NATO troops will be gone by the end of 2014, a modest force is expected to remain to conduct raids on insurgents and train Afghan troops under yet-to-be completed talks on military support and cooperation.
"We have received indications ... through intermediaries. They have been sending message (that) they are ready to talk," Rabbani said.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Rob Taylor and Mark Heinrich)