By a strange turn of events, two military dictators in Pakistan benefitted a lot by firstly, the two superpowers’ clash (during the cold war) in Afghanistan in the 1980s and after Nine Eleven when the sole superpower attacked and later occupied the country during the first decade of the new millennium. Ziaul Haq could pat himself on the back by claiming to be a hero, while fighting a proxy war against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan with US funds and armaments. He fully capitalised this opportunity to consolidate and prolong his hold on the country. After Nine Eleven, Pervez Musharraf, who because of sabotaging the democratic process in Pakistan and foisting military rule had earned worldwide disfavour (remember President Bill Clinton refusing to be seen meeting him during his 5-hour stay in Pakistan after spending a number of days in India) and was practically reduced to the status of a pariah, suddenly emerged as a partner with USA and the leading powers of the world to take up a fight against al-Qaeda. He too basked in the new relationship that was forged between Washington and Islamabad.The way Musharraf literally sold Pakistan to the sole superpower of the day and the subsequent enormous damage done to Pakistan’s economy and society is a subject by itself. His sudden and unthinking acts of subservience cost us grievously. Pakistan was dragged into the war and has paid the heavy price of casualties of tens of thousands of its nationals, including military personnel, the rise of Pakistani Taliban, the continuing war-like operations by our armed forces in our own territories, sporadic attacks from Afghanistan, unending suicide bombings and continuing drone strikes.Thus, instead of benefitting, we came close to losing the American trust and friendship. Never before did we have to contend with such unfriendly and even provocative statements from Congressmen, Senators, the Pentagon, the State Department and the American media. Our neighbour Afghanistan too has been chiding us for exporting terrorism across the border.Because of its strategic location, the weight of its large and efficient armed forces as also its nuclear status, Pakistan has retained its importance internationally, despite various setbacks. After a year or so of estranged relations, Washington and Islamabad are beginning to come closer. A repairing of ties is taking place. This has been mostly due to the clear realisation on the part of Washington that it needs Islamabad’s help and cooperation in bringing the endgame in Afghanistan to a conclusion in a way that is not only face-saving, but also serves the continuing American interests in the region. This explains the change of tone and tune on the part of Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, who earlier has been lambasting Pakistan laying all the blame on it for the troubles the Americans have been facing in Afghanistan. He had directly accused the army of complicity (and in particular the ISI) with the Talibans operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.A number of moves have recently been seen. These include meeting of US-Pakistan consultation groups on defence, energy, economics and finance. Also, talks between Hina Rabbani Khar and Hillary Clinton in Tokyo, Washington and Brussels (where General Kayani was also present). Add to these, a number of meetings at various levels of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-US Core Group. Once again, there is activity to take up reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and preparations for holding a moot in Qatar. Pakistan is expected to play a helpful role in these negotiations. There have been other development too. The most recent one was the getting together of the Turkish, Afghan and Pakistan Presidents. President Hamid Karzai, who had earlier directly accused us of involvement in the killing of the Afghan Intelligence Chief, has spoken of cooperation and friendly ties with Pakistan. A few days ago, Pakistan had released a number of Afghan prisoners in Pakistani jails. Vibes coming from Washington about relations between US and Pakistan, as indicated above, too are on the mend. In fact, the US can take credit for encouraging both Afghanistan and Pakistan to shed their reservations and make efforts to move closer to each other.It is noteworthy that Pakistan has after years realised that it need not go after the old notion of “strategic depth” and of installing a friendly government in Kabul. A stable Afghanistan is good for all its neighbours.There are formidable challenges and yet unanswered questions. After withdrawal in 2014, for instance, what will be the size and nature of American presence in Pakistan? What kind of political dispensation there will be in Afghanistan after the American exit? How smooth will be this exit?  Will American supplies, including a lot of armaments, move across Pakistan peacefully? Will it be possible for the Taliban and the leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance to come to some sort of working relationship and understanding? How about the warlords? Will they accept the new authority in Kabul and its writ in their areas? What will be the role of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours after American exit from Afghanistan? What influence will India have in Afghanistan, backed as it is by Washington? And how will Pakistan relate itself to its Western neighbour? Pakistan needs to do a lot of homework to come to grips with these and many other internal and external challenges. This will mean a host of formidable tasks. It has to learn to quit unnecessary involvement in the affairs of its neighbours. Its past record in this respect was seriously flawed.First of all, it has to put its own house in order - politically, administratively and economically. It cannot afford to continue in its wayward ways. It has suffered enough and has reached the brink. It must do everything possible to restore peace in the country. It has to find way to address the daunting situations in Balochistan and Karachi. It has also to devise a workable strategy to open negotiations with our own people in Fata and seek to stop war-like activities, as far as possible. But this does not mean that lawless and anti-Pakistan elements should not be dealt with a stern hand. There is a dire need to bring back trust and amity that characterised the behaviour of our own fellow Pakistanis living in the tribal areas. Foreigners and anti-Pakistan elements must be systematically identified, expelled and, if necessary, eliminated. Special efforts must be made to rehabilitate the internally displaced people (who are presently eking out a miserable existence). A timetable should be set to send back most of the remaining Afghan refugees, relieving Pakistan of the burden of feeding and looking after them. The ailing economy has also to be revived. The big question is: do we have the will, the sagacity and capacity to do to these essential tasks efficiently and expeditiously?  I leave the answer to my dear readers.

The writer is an ex-federal secretary & ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.Email: pacade@brain.net.pk