DIPLOMACY works. And politicians can and will play a role. The release of Abdul Ghani Baradar, aka Mullah Baradar, the former Taliban No 2, had been a long-standing demand of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and it is surely not a coincidence that his wish has been granted weeks after he visited Pakistan at the invitation of the Sharif government. Given the lows that the Pak-Afghan relationship has witnessed and the cutting remarks that have flowed in either direction over the years, the fact that the Pakistani and Afghan administrations can work together to achieve a result is a minor milestone, if not a miracle of some sort. The change in tone may be linked to the inescapable fact that time for a post-2014 Afghan settlement is running out quickly, or a late-stage maturity on both sides. Whatever the reason, it should be encouraged. For Pakistan, it is essential that the political leadership involve itself in critical foreign relations.
Now, to the less rosy side of reality. Time is short, in particular for President Hamid Karzai, whose successor’s election process will kick off shortly and culminate with a vote in April, and it’s unclear what if anything can be concretely achieved on the reconciliation front before next year, and perhaps even after. Thus far, the release of Afghan Taliban prisoners, if indeed they were prisoners, by Pakistan has not moved the reconciliation process forward much, all sides agree, whether speaking privately or publicly. Even at this stage, even when Pakistan has played a facilitating role — as in the case of the Doha office of the Taliban — the Afghan Taliban’s willingness to seek an Afghan settlement politically is in question. Then again, that is the slow and arduous task of diplomacy: to keep plugging away in even the most hostile and hopeless of environments to try and see where opportunities lie. For Pakistan and Afghanistan, another major hurdle to improving relations remains cross-border attacks — in both directions. Perhaps on that front progress can also be sought by both sides.