IS it finally time for some cautious optimism? Islamabad and Kabul’s friendly overtures this week in Turkey were the latest of a number of positive signs that have provided some hope that the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan might be working their way towards closer cooperation for peace in this region. Pakistan’s release of Afghan Taliban prisoners, an encouraging sign, had been a long-standing Kabul demand that had been resisted for years. It followed a number of public statements by Pakistani officials about wanting to help facilitate talks with the Taliban. On Wednesday, despite accusations that Pakistan was behind the attack on the Afghan intelligence chief, presidents Karzai and Zardari were able to showcase some degree of unity against the security threats that have destabilised both countries. Mistrust persists, and much remains to be worked out — in particular the issue of each country’s militants taking refuge across the border. But movement on the Taliban reconciliation project has created at least one avenue of concrete cooperation despite lingering suspicions.
On the Pakistan-US front too, after the post-Salala agreement, there is reason to hope that ties are being rebuilt, and this time in a more intelligent fashion. The constant media leaks and provocative public statements from both sides that plagued ties last year and through the first half of this year have subsided, suggesting acceptance that squabbling in public was worsening matters. Visits and interactions have been more low-key but are continuing, indicating behind-the-scenes forward movement in understanding each other’s needs and constraints. The US defence secretary’s statement on Tuesday that Pakistan was willing to take action against safe havens — this from the same man who earlier said that the Haqqani network was a “veritable arm” of the ISI — was clearly intended to preserve progress in the relationship.
But Pakistan’s ties with the US are, in significant part, about Afghanistan, and any improvement in them also bodes well for what will happen in both Pakistan and Afghanistan over the next two years and once most Western troops leave. All in all, the increased cooperation and less fraught communication among the three sides hold great potential. The challenges are still enormous — questions remain about whether the Afghans will be able to handle their own security post-2014, to what extent Pakistani and Afghan militants will continue supporting each other and foreign militants, and whether the Afghan Taliban will come to the table in a meaningful way. But at least when it comes to the three governments cooperating with one another, the signs are encouraging. The question is how well they will take advantage of this moment.