x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Warmer ties signalled for US-Pakistan’s marriage of necessity

The highest-level talks since 2009 mark a moment of optimism after the countries’ relationship fell to a low in 2011 after the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the capture of a CIA contractor in Lahore after he killed two men, and the US attack on a Pakistan military outpost that killed 24 soldiers. Taimur Khan reports

US secretary of state John Kerry meets with Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the State Department in Washington. Cliff Owen / AP
US secretary of state John Kerry meets with Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif at the State Department in Washington. Cliff Owen / AP

NEW YORK // Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington and his meeting yesterday with Barack Obama at the White House signal a warmer relationship between the troubled allies, but it is unlikely to affect the enduring problems that undermine the marriage of necessity.

The highest-level talks since 2009 offer a renewed opening for cooperation, and mark a moment of optimism after the countries’ relationship fell to a low in 2011 after the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the capture of a CIA contractor in Lahore after he killed two men, and the US attack on a Pakistan military outpost that killed 24 soldiers.

While the US remains frustrated by Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to tackle Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in its territory that target US troops in Afghanistan, “the tone is infinitely better than it was two years ago”, Moeed Yusuf, an expert at the US Institute of Peace think tank, told public radio.

The US sees the victory of Mr Sharif’s centre-right party in May, which marked the first successful democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, as an important step. The countries also share a sense of urgency to find a political settlement in Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of US-led forces next year.

White House officials have said Mr Sharif’s visit reflects the resilience of the relationship, and to encourage the detente the Obama administration has moved to release US$1.6 billion (Dh5.88bn) in military and economic assistance to Pakistan that had been frozen during the years of poor relations.

But fundamental disagreements persist about security and counterterrorism strategies as the US withdraws from Afghanistan as well as the nature of bilateral ties after 2014. Mr Sharif wants to see a robust economic partnership that spurs Pakistan’s development and role in Asia.

“The Obama administration recognises that Sharif is keen on democratisation, keen on normalising ties with India, keen on some degree of economic reform, and both countries need one another to stabilise Afghanistan and secure a US exit,” said Arif Rafiq, a scholar at the Middle East Institute think tank.

“But at the same time they view Sharif as a mixed bag, because he is inclined to peace deals with militants and lacks the will and capacity to push back against the Pakistan military’s policy of using militant groups as proxies vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India,” he added.

While the leaders will try to play down their differences, one of the most pressing disagreements is over the CIA’s use of drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas that have also killed civilians. Mr Sharif again called on the US to end the killing programme on Tuesday, saying the strikes, which are overwhelmingly unpopular in Pakistan, have “deeply disturbed and agitated our people” and undermine Islamabad’s counterterrorism efforts.

A report by Amnesty International on US drone strikes in Pakistan timed for Mr Sharif’s visit found that at least 19 civilians were killed in the North Waziristan tribal area in just two of the 45 drone strikes since January 2012, and that the US may be guilty of war crimes.

On Tuesday a State Department spokeswoman claimed the strikes are carried out in accordance with international law. “There’s a wide gap between US assessments and … non-governmental reports about civilian casualties,” Marie Harf said.

Even though Mr Obama has significantly scaled back the number of strikes in Pakistan this year, Mr Sharif’s government exploits the issue to displace blame for the unending terrorist violence in Pakistan onto American policy, and defers having to implement a tough counterterrorism policy, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an Islamabad-based security analyst.

“The Pakistani position is for domestic consumption. They want to demonstrate that they pleaded the cause of drones, but America didn’t listen,” he said. “This is a contradictory policy that undermines achievements in other areas or cooperation.”

US economic and military assistance to Pakistan is not slated to continue after the US drawdown, and will be subject to a comprehensive review once the US leaves Afghanistan.

Topping Mr Sharif’s agenda this week has been economic cooperation as well as a civilian nuclear energy deal that is unlikely to find supporters in the US Congress, where there is “growing anti-Pakistan sentiment and a more isolationist turn and voices against government spending”, Mr Rafiq said.

The US has signalled that it will not abandon Pakistan completely after 2014, but the level of economic cooperation and military sales will decrease and there are no signs that it has a broader vision for the region and how Pakistan fits into it, Mr Rizvi said.

Mr Sharif has articulated his own vision of Pakistan as the cornerstone of an economic zone connecting Central Asia and the subcontinent, a strategy that the Obama administration has itself said it supports as a way to bolster mutual interdependence and lower the risk of conflict.

While the prime minister said he recognised that security is a prerequisite to his economic vision, he has so far avoided taking steps to begin addressing militancy in Pakistan. His administration has said it is planning to hold peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, but so far has offered no strategy or details.

“He knows what he wants to do with respect to the economic relationship with neighbouring states, but at the same time he really doesn’t have a road map for achieving the peace that’s required for trade,” Mr Rafiq said.

Elections in India may usher in a new right-wing government hostile to Pakistan, and the uncertainty in Afghanistan also threaten the regional economic vision.

tkhan@thenational.ae