It was scheduled and then postponed. Once it was rescheduled, it had to be postponed again. Then, on July 31, it finally happened — US Secretary of State John Kerry made his long-awaited trip to Pakistan.
There were two notable takeaways from the entire visit. The first is that Kerry and his Pakistani interlocutors are really serious about restarting the strategic dialogue, which has been suspended for two years.
This is undoubtedly a good thing. Washington has few strategic relationships — wide-ranging, foolproof partnerships overflowing with so much trust that intelligence-sharing is taken for granted. Those relationships that do exist (the US-Israel and US-UK interactions) can easily withstand any bilateral bumps.
The US-Pakistan relationship, by contrast, is not blessed with a large reservoir of goodwill to weather crises. Cursed with unrealistic expectations, divergent interests and mutual mistrust, US-Pakistan relations are volatile at best and dysfunctional at worst. It wouldn’t take much to bring a resurrected strategic dialogue to a screeching halt.
This isn’t to say the strategic dialogue isn’t worth restarting; both nations are certainly better off with a deeper relationship. It would be folly for Washington to take lightly a nation that a) controls critical supply routes to and from Afghanistan b) exerts influence over the Afghan Taliban and c) in the long-term, is one of the world’s most youthful, populous and strategically placed countries. Likewise, it would be silly for Pakistan to shrug off a superpower that provides so many essential things — from export markets to economic assistance to military hardware.
But, realistically speaking, how seriously can we take a strategic dialogue involving two nations that arguably share only one major strategic interest — stability in Pakistan — but differ wildly on how to achieve it?
This brings me to the second key takeaway of Kerry’s whirlwind visit: the conciliatory comments on, of all things, drones. The secretary of state stunned the world by saying in a PTV interview that,“I think the [drone] programme will end as we have eliminated most of the threat … I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”
So does this mean a huge source of bilateral tensions is poised to disappear? Well, yes, if Kerry’s statement were actually true. In reality, it is most assuredly not true at all. Unless, by “very, very soon”, Kerry meant after 2014.
Washington won’t soon end what is regarded by it today as the most effective option to eliminate Pakistan-based militants who attack US troops in Afghanistan — as well as civilian, government and military targets in Pakistan.
Perhaps, with his comments, Kerry was simply looking for ways to keep alive the warming trend in US-Pakistan relations — particularly as both sides look ahead to a visit Nawaz Sharif will apparently be making to Washington, later this year.
Overall, what strikes me the most about Kerry’s visit is how much it was a reflection of the bilateral relationship on the whole. It was volatile (how many high-level bilateral visits are rescheduled twice?), opaque (strikingly little emerged about what was actually discussed) and a bit melodramatic (the trip being billed as “unannounced” is a bit much, given that numerous media outlets had reported it several days in advance).
So was it a successful visit? Sure. Will it lead to greater things? Stay tuned — we might want to keep our expectations in check.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2013.
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