ISLAMABAD -  Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s planned visit to Kabul on Saturday comes on the heels of several significant developments with positive implications on Islamabad-Kabul relations. There is reason to believe that even at present Islamabad is engaged in attempting to put together suggestions for a Kabul-Afghan Taliban reconciliation plan.

Developments on Pakistan-Afghanistan front have shown some promising signs in the recent months. The mostly strained bilateral ties between the two neighbours have been on the mend since July when the PM sent his National Security adviser Sartaj Aziz to Kabul to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to visit Pakistan. Karzai’s subsequent visit to Pakistan in August led to release of detained Afghan Taliban leaders including former top commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, considered by Kabul as key to political reconciliation. By all credible accounts, the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) has been in contact with Baradar who is currently Kabul’s main hope for reconciliation in the war-torn country. During its visit here last week the HPC delegation had a “useful” meeting with the former Taliban commander Mullah Baradar. The bridging of gap between them (Afghan Taliban and Karzai), according to insiders, is of course a different matter.

This was the second round of talks between HPC and Mullah Baradar since his release in September. The HPC expressed satisfaction over a “good meeting” and acknowledged Pakistan’s positive role in facilitating it. All this demonstrates that Pakistan is finally perceived as playing a positive role in the Afghan political reconciliation. This is a long way from where Pakistan was being asked to make a statement asking Afghan Taliban to actually engage in a political reconciliation process.

Kabul will now also complain less to Islamabad about the Haqqani group operating from Pakistan, even if Islamabad is apparently not linked to how the group has been hit. The killing of two main leaders of the Haqqani group this month – one having been shot on the outskirts of Islamabad in Barakoh and the other killed by a US drone strike in Hangu is significant. The attack on the Haqqani group's madarasa in Hangu and targeting of its top leadership has weakened their will and capacity. It also conveys to them that their cross-border activities will be prevented at all costs and they can carry out more of those at a very high cost to the group itself.

The killing of Pakistani Taliban head Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike earlier and appointment of Fazalullah as the new chief seems to have created cracks within the TTP.

The outcome of the trilateral summit on Afghanistan that took place in London on October 29 after a long break was another positive development. It is there that Pakistan accepted the Afghan President’s proposal for a HPC delegation’s meeting with Baradar. Also PM’s upcoming visit to Kabul was also finalised there.

Notably for the first time the Americans nabbed a senior level TTP leader Latif Mehsud in Afghanistan who was planning more attacks in Pakistan and reportedly foiled Afghan intelligence bid of using him as bargaining chip with Pakistan. The successful conclusion of Pakistan-US defence talks in Washington last week also points to increased coordination and cooperation on Afghanistan. Pakistan-US ties have an important bearing on prospects of peace and stability in Afghanistan and despite the key irritant of drone strikes, trust-deficit between the two countries appears to be narrowing down. This is evident by the resumption of the stalled Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue following the September 23 Nawaz-Obama meeting in Washington.

The US is also beginning to acknowledge Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about India’s role on its western border. US envoy James Dobbins recently admitted that Islamabad’s concerns over Indian role in Afghanistan are not ‘groundless’.  

The most recent breakthrough, the beginnings of a rapprochement between Iran and the West, will also lead to greater cooperation between the US and Iran on the anti-Taliban front. Many believe that there is more behind the Iran-West accord than just curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme. Reportedly Tehran and Washington have cooperated, directly and indirectly, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Iran has also shared intelligence with the US.

Political reconciliation in Afghanistan is vital for peace and security in the region just as is the nature of the security pact to be firmed up between Kabul and Afghanistan. The Afghan Loya Jirga’s discussion on Afghanistan’s Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US took place against the backdrop of the weakening of the Haqqani group and the Afghan Peace Council's dialogue with the Mulla Baradar. All this does signal, more than is publicly being acknowledged, a close three-way coordination.

The proposed bilateral agreement between the US and Afghanistan that is yet to be signed addresses Pakistan’s key concern. The agreed draft excludes the initial Afghan demand for joint actions against military aggression by other nations, specifically Pakistan. Islamabad’s position articulated by the Foreign Office is: “Whatever arrangement is finally worked out between Afghanistan and the US should not undermine the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”  

Going by these developments it seems that there is better understanding between Islamabad and Kabul, than there has been in the last one year. The two capitals, as important behind-the-scenes negotiations and efforts indicate, are cooperating to promote Afghan reconciliation, as the crucial phased withdrawal of US-led Nato troops draws nearer. Washington too appears privy to and part of these efforts.

Finally the outcome of all these efforts depends on several unpredictables. The results of the April 2014 presidential elections and the final shape that the much-negotiated Afghanistan-US bilateral security pact takes, are two key unpredictables.