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Shift in the wind?

November 15, 2012

FINALLY, a possible breakthrough. After months of apparent reluctance to help facilitate Afghan reconciliation, Islamabad’s handing over of a handful of Afghan prisoners is a promising sign that Pakistan’s thinking on the issue might be shifting. Little is known publicly about who the released prisoners are, and what level of influence they have on decision makers within the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Baradar and other high-profile prisoners the Afghans requested remain in Pakistani custody. The rifts within the Taliban over whether or not to talk to the Karzai government are well-known. But Pakistan’s move has at least two important positive implications. It could, if the prisoners handed over are able to help, breathe some life into an Afghan reconciliation process that appears to be stalled.

The more likely and long-term benefit of the exchange, of course, is that it has the potential to become a turning point in Pak-Afghan relations, creating the opportunity for future initiatives that could pay off even if these particular prisoners aren’t able to do much. There is also the matter of a lack of willingness on both sides to take action against groups carrying out cross-border attacks, something they may be more willing to do as relations improve. As the clock winds down, bringing the region closer to Afghan elections and the Nato withdrawal, the lack of a constructive relationship is not something either Pakistan or Afghanistan can do without. Pakistan’s coming to the table is hopefully a recognition of just this fact. Also promising is how this move could boost Pakistan-US relations, even as America’s role in this exchange, of whatever nature and extent, was wisely played down. The focus on the bilateral aspects of this particular agreement is important, a confidence-building measure between the two countries that will have to manage affairs once Western troops leave.

No matter what choices Pakistan makes regarding a role in Afghan peace, it is hard to predict how things will play out. If, for example, the Afghan Taliban have a role in a future Afghan government, one facilitated by Pakistan, might they provide shelter to Pakistani Taliban seeking refuge there? But if reconciliation doesn’t work and the country descends into further conflict once Nato forces leave, might there be spillover in Pakistan? The outcome of any given Pakistani approach is hard to predict. But one thing we now know for sure: impeding peace in Afghanistan by trying to hedge our bets through proxies has been a losing strategy. Supporting or sheltering them has only caused damage here at home. It is time to back a peaceful political process next door instead.