BARELY a week before the summit meeting between the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, the attempt to assassinate head of Afghan intelligence Asadullah Khalid in a suicide bombing, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quick to point an accusing finger at Pakistan. The attack, he alleged, had been planned in Quetta, and while the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attempt, Karzai went a step further: “The reality is that such a complicated attack and a bomb that was hidden inside his body (suggests) this is not the work of the Taliban.”

The Taliban, he continued, were not capable of undertaking a “completely professional and thoroughly engineered attack”. Though he did not name the culprit, the pointer was clear.

Pakistan rejected the allegations and demanded proof, but it was yet another manifestation of how tenuous and delicate the relations between the two neighbours happened to be.

Only a month earlier, Pakistan, on Afghanistan’s request, had set a number of Taliban commanders free, to help promote peace and reconciliation in that country. Afghanistan had hailed the move and asked for more such steps.

Jumping into the fray next was Interior Minister Rehman Malik, asking Afghanistan to hand over fugitive Pakistani Taliban leader from Swat Maulana Fazlullah and TTP leader from Bajaur Maulvi Faqir Muhammad.

But despite mutual recriminations, both countries seem to have moved forward on a possible roadmap for a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Whether the release of the Taliban prisoners would help achieve that end, or, as has been the case earlier, some of them would return to the battlefield to fight ‘foreign occupation’, is not clear but for now, it seems, Islamabad has agreed to grant some concessions to Kabul in its quest for peace in that country.

Pakistan seems to be getting rid of what Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar described as the “strategic hangover” and “historical baggage”. But it is still cautious; unsure of the US moves on Afghanistan. But Afghans remain sceptical regarding this very “historical baggage” that Ms. Khar now seems so eager to throw out.

The Pakistanis say they would not put all their cards on the table unless the Americans do so. As such, from now till August 2014, when the drawdown of US forces is set to begin, Pakistan would be moving cautiously on the strategic chessboard, testing American intentions and plans for the region.

For most part of the last couple of years, relations between the two allies have remained tense and strained. Beginning with Raymond Davis, the raid on Osama’s compound to take out the Al Qaeda chief, the attack on Salala checkpost and Pakistan’s decision to suspend Nato supplies, demanding apology from the US, all sent relations between Islamabad and Washington into a tailspin.

The escalation in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal borderland didn’t help things either. But a series of high-level diplomatic and military exchanges between the two countries seem to have brought about a degree of normalcy in relationship between the two.

The US offered the long-awaited apology and Pakistan allowed the resumption of Nato supplies. Relations between the two militaries and intelligence agencies of the two countries in the so-called War on Terror have also shown improvement. Among other things, the US has agreed to pay the stuck-up $600 million Coalition Support Fund.

Although drone strikes in the tribal region remain an issue between the two countries, Pakistan has grudgingly backed down from downright opposition to acknowledging that while it considered such attacks a breach of its sovereignty and counterproductive, it was not the drones but its execution that was wrong.

There have been meetings on border coordination between the two militaries. Pakistani militants operating from across the border have ceased their attacks – apparently on account of winter – on Pakistani outposts after a series of raids.

The US has asked for intelligence on the fugitive Pakistani militant leaders, but Pakistan says it has already shared information and coordinates with their American counterpart and is waiting for appropriate action on the other side.

The Americans have also backed down in terms of publicly insisting on military operation in North Waziristan. New US ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson has described the issue as Pakistan’s internal matter.

This is an intelligent move and it seems to be aimed at allowing Pakistan a bit of space to make its own decisions on security matters to win over public support. Part of the reason Pakistan’s military leadership shied away from action in the volatile tribal region was the US public insistence. The GHQ does not want to be seen as conducting the operation at the US behest.

The year to come will be critical in terms relations between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are likely to step up attacks to strengthen their position at the negotiating table vis-a-vis the Karzai government and the US.

Pakistan is nervous that a US desperate to meet its pullout timeframe may leave behind an unstable Afghanistan; further complicating the security situation not only in its western neighbourhood, but also in its own tribal backyard. As the key players to the conflict in Afghanistan jostle to safeguard their interests in any future settlement, the contours of much of what may lead to or derail a political solution are likely to emerge in the year to come.

The writer is Dawn’s Resident Editor in Peshawar.

Updated Jan 01, 2013 12:05pm

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