THE handover of Latif Mehsud, a key leader of the banned TTP, and unnamed other prisoners held by the US military in Afghanistan and wanted by Pakistan is a significant confidence-building measure. It suggests the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan are genuinely working towards trying to address the respective security concerns that the three countries have in the region.
At the very least, it marks a conclusive break from the strained era of Hamid Karzai, who was often accused by the Pakistani security establishment of effectively offering sanctuary to anti-Pakistan militants in order to put pressure on Pakistan on the Afghan Taliban.
Going forward from here though is not necessarily straightforward or easy, given that the Afghan government is almost sure to insist on a quid pro quo that will involve Pakistan facilitating access to the Afghan Taliban leadership in order to push ahead with the dialogue process. Perhaps, though, with the US acting as a broker and a kind of guarantor behind the scenes, the Pak-Afghan equation can be unlocked.
Yet, ultimately, a few prisoner releases here and there will not make for a fundamentally transformed relationship.
As repeatedly echoed in these columns, the true test of a stable, cooperative relationship will be on border management and preventing the cross-border militancy that has so damaged bilateral ties for decades. Will the two countries pass the test?
Furthermore, bringing Latif Mehsud back to Pakistan could bring valuable intelligence on the operations of the TTP, but that intelligence will have to be handled carefully, given that it is likely to bring to light further information on the extent of ties between certain militant groups here and the Afghan defence establishment.
As has been seen several times before, what initially appears as an opportunity for improved ties ends up being used by hawks to drive a wedge between the two countries.
But for now, it appears that pragmatists on both sides are inching towards a closer understanding and the ideologues are being held in check.
Surely, this is a result of high-level interactions, whether in the US with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif or in London at meetings involving Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. More such meetings could substantially increase chances of a breakthrough.
Here in Pakistan, there should be an additional channel of communication left wide open: between the army-led security establishment and the political government. Talking among all sides is vital.
Published in Dawn December 9th , 2014