By Katharine Houreld and Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has freed four Afghan Taliban prisoners, including a former justice minister, a Pakistani government official said on Monday, in the newest sign Islamabad is serious about backing peace efforts in Afghanistan.
Regional power Pakistan is seen as critical to the success of U.S. and Afghan efforts to bring stability to the country, a task gaining urgency as the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014 draws closer.
Afghanistan has been pressing the strategic U.S. ally to free Taliban members who could help promote reconciliation.
The Taliban figures were close to the movement's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and could help the Kabul government promote peace, a senior Afghan official said.
"Their release will certainly have a positive impact on the mindsets of other senior Taliban, especially on field commanders who took orders from them for years," the official, who is close to reconciliation efforts, told Reuters.
Former Taliban Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, whom Afghan Taliban field commanders said was Mullah Omar's "right-hand man", was among those freed.
The others were a former governor, Mullah Abdul Bari, former deputy communications minister Mullah Allahdad and Mullah Azam, who served as one of Mullah Omar's security guards, a Pakistani foreign ministry official and military sources said.
A Taliban commander said eight prisoners had been released but did not identify them. It was not clear how long the prisoners had been held nor on what charges. Pakistan, which has long been accused of backing Afghan insurgent groups, has freed several mid-level Taliban members in recent weeks.
While Afghan officials may be hopeful that the released men could help bring stability after decades of conflict, some Taliban field commanders did not share that optimism.
"Once you have been in prison you can't operate inside our network," said one commander. "You don't have the same status."
ANXIETY OVER THE FUTURE
The Taliban seized power in 1996 and were toppled by U.S.-backed forces in 2001. Many Afghans fear they will make a renewed push to seize power once Western forces pull out.
One crucial Afghan Taliban member still in detention in Pakistan is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group's former second-in-command. Pakistani officials have said they would consider freeing him.
A senior Afghan government official has said Pakistan shares the Kabul government's goal of transforming the Taliban insurgency into a political movement.
Pakistan's powerful army chief has made reconciling warring factions in Afghanistan a priority, Pakistani military officials and Western diplomats told Reuters.
General Ashfaq Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan, is backing dialogue partly due to fears that the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan could energize a resilient insurgency straddling the shared frontier, according to commanders deployed in the region.
Mutual suspicions between Afghanistan and its nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan, have hampered efforts to tackle militancy in one of the world's most explosive regions.
Afghan officials had even accused Pakistan of arresting Afghan Taliban members who were engaging in peace efforts without Islamabad's knowledge.
Pakistan has long been seen as determined to block the influence of old rival India in Afghanistan and has been believed to be quietly supporting the Taliban in the hope they would exclude pro-India Afghan factions from power.
Afghanistan and Pakistan appear to now agree that it is in their interests to work more closely together, with the NATO deadline looming.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul and Jibran Ahmad in Peshwar; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)