Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is visiting Washington this week. This is his first official visit in the current term which is going to be a complex and difficult diplomatic venture. The bilateral and regional issues will be discussed in a frank and cordial, rather than a warm and comfortable atmosphere.
The two sides will discuss the whole gamut of their bilateral relations. This will help them understand each other’s point of view on bilateral and regional issues but there is little chance of any noticeable change in the areas of agreement and disagreement between Pakistan and the United States. The current pattern of convergence and divergence in Pakistan-US relations will continue.
The US is expected to appreciate Pakistan’s efforts to control terrorism and will continue with multifaceted cooperation for Pakistan’s socio-economic development. However, the US is not expected to get a clear Pakistani commitment on the issue of ‘safe havens’ for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan; the US demand for non-discriminatory military operations against all kinds of Taliban, especially the Afghan Taliban; and more forthright support for the Kabul government before and after 2014.
Despite the criticism of the use of drone aircraft in the reports of two UN rapporteurs, released on October 18, it will be a major surprise if the US accepts the Pakistani demand for a complete stop of drone attacks in the tribal areas. The US is expected to argue for a limited use of drone aircraft until Pakistan establishes a firm control over the tribal areas and excludes militants, especially the Afghan Taliban, from there.
The redeeming feature of the current Pakistan-US relations is that both want to maintain active bilateral relations despite mutual complaints. The US will not undertake a major review of its relations with Pakistan before 2015 when American troops have left Afghanistan and the five-year socio-economic assistance package for Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill enters its final year.
The overall diplomatic atmosphere in Washington is not in favour of Pakistan. US official circles express their views in a discreet manner. This does not apply to the scholars and former officials working with Washington-based think tanks, who are more frank in expressing their negative views on Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy, its troubled economy and internal conflicts, accelerated terrorist activities since the present government came into power and the never-ending skirmishes on the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.
Prime Minister Sharif has a busy meeting schedule. A day before his meeting with President Barack Obama, he addresses the US Institute for Peace (USIP) on October 22. If a question-answer session follows his presentation, he will have a feel of how the academia and think tank community, working on South Asia, view Pakistan’s policies. Many of the arguments that Pakistan’s official and semi-official circles give about Pakistan-US relations and regional affairs within Pakistan are not likely to work at the international level. Instead of blowing one’s trumpet, the prime minister and other senior Pakistani officials should address the questions that are being raised about Pakistan in the US and elsewhere.
Currently, global thinking on transnational terrorism raises two major issues on Pakistan’s efforts to control terrorism. First, has Pakistan’s security establishment come to a firm conclusion that all militant groups, based in the tribal areas and mainland Pakistan, especially in Punjab, are a threat to Pakistan or does it gloss over the activities of some groups for their possible use as an instrument of policy in the future? Second, how would one explain the increased terrorist activity in the last three to four months despite claims by Pakistani authorities of adopting a forthright approach to counter terrorism? The delay in the disposal of the case against six Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders for their alleged role in the Mumbai attacks and the freedom given for the political and religious activities of the Jamatud Dawa will confront Pakistani officials with difficult questions.
The prime minister and his foreign policy advisers should try to understand why the global consensus on countering terrorism does not always synchronise with Pakistan’s operational strategies for countering militant groups. Why, after having lost over 40,000 people to internal violence and terrorism, Pakistan continues to be described as a source of global terrorism. International conspiracy theories may satisfy domestic public opinion but this card does not work outside of Pakistan.
The success of Pakistani diplomacy in the US depends to a great extent on the capacity of Pakistani officials to satisfy American official and non-official circles on the above issues. The space available to Pakistani officials to articulate their perspective will decrease after 2014 when most US troops would be out of Afghanistan. Though the US will still seek Pakistani support for post-2014 Afghanistan, its options will increase after 2014.
The continuing skirmishes on the LoC are going to cast a dark shadow on the prime minister’s visit both at the official and non-official levels. This will raise the question regarding how far Nawaz Sharif’s enthusiasm for improving relations with India is shared by the military establishment.
The purpose of the US visit will be served if Pakistan’s civilian and military policymakers become conscious of how the world looks at Pakistan and why the international community entertains distrust about Pakistan. They can react in two possible ways: reject global perceptions of Pakistan as a conspiracy or review their policies to connect positively with the international community.
Pakistan’s policymakers should assign a priority to adopting a long-term perspective on regional issues, with recognition of growing interdependence in the international system and that internal political and economic strengths hold the key to a country’s role at the international level.
There is a more fundamental question to consider. How can Pakistan sustain its internal political coherence and economic stability if it cannot effectively control terrorism? If it is able to do this effectively, it will increase the confidence of its citizens and the international community in Pakistan as a viable and effective political entity.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2013.
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