IN what appears to be an orchestrated move, Pakistan has responded to the relatively smooth visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Islamabad late last month with the release of seven more Afghan Taliban leaders who were in Pakistani custody. From the outside, with little hard information on the ability of the former detainees to help improve the Afghan government’s contacts with the Afghan Taliban, it is difficult to predict how much of an impact the latest round of prisoner releases will have. More than likely, the release of the detainees is a small confidence-building measure on the part of Pakistan to try and rehabilitate ties with outgoing President Karzai without significantly impacting the intra-Afghan dialogue process. After all, the muted response of the Afghan presidency that underlined disappointment over the non-release of Mullah Baradar, believed to be the senior-most Afghan Taliban in Pakistani custody, suggests that the seven detainees released are unlikely to be a game-changer.
Then again, at this late stage, with 2014 just months away, a positive game-changer can hardly be expected from any side. Within much more modest parameters, however, there is a sense that somehow the preferred option of a peaceful intra-Afghan political settlement will eventually materialise — in part because Pakistan appears more willing to at least be mildly accommodating of the Afghan government’s demands. While prisoner releases grab headlines, there is a sense that the real prize is not contact with Afghan detainees on Pakistani soil but with Taliban leaders who have found sanctuary inside Pakistan. That infinitely more delicate process will likely be managed far away from the media spotlight — and prisoner releases may be a first step towards that eventual goal.
Whatever the realities of Pakistan’s efforts to facilitate an Afghan dialogue or reconciliation process, what is missing in all of this is any answers to the Pakistani public. Nawaz Sharif’s government has continued the rather dispiriting approach of spouting banalities on key foreign relationships and keeping the substance hidden from the public. Consider that when Mr Karzai was in Islamabad, Prime Minister Sharif seemed to suggest that trade was the real key to better relations with Afghanistan — an assessment so far removed from reality as to be risible. If the era of behind-the-scenes deals and cloak-and-dagger diplomacy is ever to be left behind, the government must lead from the front with transparency. Better to talk of Indian influence and the space for Pakhtuns in Afghanistan — the real drivers of policy towards Afghanistan — than to mislead, a game which fools no one, here or in Afghanistan.