The arrests over the last few weeks -- including the detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's second in command -- are being hailed as a new beginning for Pakistan, which has traditionally nurtured Islamic fundamentalists as an integral part of its foreign policy.
Reports have multiplied recently that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has begun to work more closely with the CIA. The New York Times this week chronicles a relationship that sometimes ends with joint toasts of Johnny Walker Blue Label, even as a long-harbored wariness persists between the services.
But if the ISI is showing a new determination, however grudging, to confront Taliban militants based on Pakistani soil, some analysts believe the shift is in large part self-serving. Ultimately, they say, the string of arrests should be viewed through the prism of Pakistan's overarching interests in Afghanistan, which have not really changed.
The environment, on the other hand, has changed. In recent months, U.S. and Afghan officials have signaled a willingness to work with Taliban leaders who renounce violence and join the political process. On Feb. 11, a controversial immunity law was quietly passed in Afghanistan to try to encourage Taliban militants, including those involved in violence, to lay down their arms.
These developments -- not unlike the reconciliation agreements that brought former Baathist insurgents in Iraq into the political fold and ended the bulk of the fighting there -- are exactly what Pakistani authorities, and especially the ISI, were hoping for.
"The ISI now potentially has a legitimate avenue of influence in Afghan politics," says one senior Pakistani intelligence official, speaking to AOL News on condition of anonymity. "Up to this point, there was no one else but insurgents to do Pakistan's bidding. Pakistan needed the Taliban to win the war in Afghanistan to maintain its influence there. Now they have another option."
But while the gambit may be novel, the ISI's overall strategy remains unchanged: Since the start of the Afghan war, it has sought a partner in Afghanistan it can trust and control. For years, that partner was the Afghan Taliban. But since the rise in violence in Pakistan, linked to Pakistani Taliban militants aided at least in part by their Afghan counterparts, that strategy has changed.
"The Afghan Taliban has started attacking Pakistan," says Dr. Sarfraz Khan, director of area studies at the University of Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province, where the bulk of Pakistan's war against its own Taliban movement is playing out. "They are now destabilizing our country."
Having proved itself to be an unstable partner for Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban is suffering the consequences in what could legitimately be viewed as a culling operation. Some analysts see the ISI as removing Taliban elements who no longer consider Pakistan a partner and allowing a new and more easily controlled leadership to form in its place.
That is not to say that Pakistan has given up on using jihadists as proxy fighters. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, committed to the jihad in Kashmir, maintain close links to the ISI. Some Pakistani analysts argue that cracking down on LeT would be deeply unpopular with the Pakistani people, who view them as legitimate freedom fighters against Indian occupation.
The Taliban, on the other hand, has lost the support of the Pakistani street. With the bloodiest year in recent memory still fresh on the minds of everyday Pakistanis, many have now turned what was tacit support for fellow Muslims fighting foreign invaders into anger and disgust. "The people on the streets do not like the Taliban anymore," says Munawer Azeem, a journalist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, based in Islamabad. "Even the religious people I meet do not support them. They are changing their minds after all of these terrorist attacks."
For the ISI, taming the beast it created appears to have become a priority. "It's a step in the right direction," says Khan. "The first indicators are there, but a complete change will only happen in small steps."
His assessment may still be somewhat sanguine. If the ISI fulfills its vision, Islamic fundamentalism, in the form of a political Taliban movement, still has a future in Afghanistan. And that raises an obvious and still open question: What kind of Afghanistan will emerge when the dust of war settles?