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There has been a small but potentially important breakthrough in the faltering Afghan peace process. In what is considered a good-faith gesture, Pakistan last week released at least nine Afghan Taliban prisoners. The move is seen as part of an emerging new strategy by Pakistan as it eyes the looming drawdown of U.S. and Western troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's decision to release the prisoners has been met with equal doses of skepticism, surprise and relief. Pakistan is seen as key to bringing the Taliban and other Islamist militants to any peace negotiation. But for years, it has balked or outright refused to release Afghan militant leaders who may be willing to take part in a reconciliation process.
The prisoner release came at the end of a three-day meeting in Islamabad between Pakistani officials and members of the Afghan High Peace Council. The Afghans were hoping a senior Taliban leader would be among those released, but Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the council, seemed pleased with the progress.
"It seems that Pakistani officials have realized that a close cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan can be effective for the peace initiative," Rabbani says. "Of course, this is a vision we have been insisting on for a long time."
Pakistan's cooperation in the prisoner release is widely viewed as part of a shift in its Afghan policy. Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of Pakistan's Senate Committee on Defense, says the government picked up a cue from the U.S.
"There has been a positive change, a turnaround if you will, and the change has been in American foreign policy in the last month or so. And that change is now being translated into a more clear policy rather than a confused policy," he says.
For example, Sayed says, the U.S. has consistently pushed Pakistan to fight the Taliban while encouraging the militants to enter peace talks. That approach created a deep well of mistrust here. Sayed says the U.S. has recently shown a new seriousness about the reconciliation process, which helped rebuild trust.
But Saleem Safi, an Afghan specialist with Pakistan's Geo TV, says Islamabad changed course because its Afghan policy wasn't working. Now Pakistan favors an inclusive government in Afghanistan rather than a return to power by the Taliban.
"Pakistan is requesting, and Pakistan is influencing Taliban, that they should make some changes in their approach so they can become acceptable to the international community and also to the other opponent of Afghan factions," he says.
Safi adds that the peace process faces many hurdles, primarily because every party to a potential agreement wants reconciliation on its own terms. He says another major complication is that the U.S. has not been forthcoming about how many of its troops will remain in Afghanistan after the bulk of Western forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
"How can Pakistan cooperate wholeheartedly with American, if the American are trying to keep something in their hands for the future to pressurize Pakistan? So then Pakistan also has the right to keep in their hand some kind of proxies," Safi says.
He adds that Pakistan is trying to ensure that it won't be vulnerable once Western troops start drawing down.
Sen. Sayed says Pakistan's focus is clear: "A stable, a united peaceful Afghanistan is what we would like to essentially want at the end of the road — that this should not lead to a situation where there is a new civil conflict among warring factors."
Still, Sayed says Pakistan has deep concerns about a power vacuum in the region and about what role Pakistan's arch-enemy, India, will play in Afghanistan post-2014.