Pakistani Sharif’s American Voyage

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing US-Pakistan Business Council in Washington DC on October 21. (Photo by Kausar Jawed)
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing US-Pakistan Business Council in Washington DC on October 21. (Photo by Kausar Jawed)


Nawaz Sharif’s team would have been relieved at the timely resolution of the fiscal impasse in US, allowing his visit to take place in somewhat normal circumstances. However, the message is clear: in the era of fiscal constraints, civilian aid and military assistance will get more limited in the future and will likely be connected to dealing with the extremists. Moreover, when it comes to trade, the protectionist sentiments are resurgent as Americans increasingly ponder over their government policies on outsourcing and trade dealings that benefit other nations more.

The priorities in Washington shift quickly, based on the crises of the day. Consider this: just a month ago US was busy debating whether to strike Syria, and then matters shifted quickly to the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. The emphasis is more on management then resolution. This is also the premise of the new book “No exit from Pakistan” from the leading Pakistani scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Daniel Markey.

Nonetheless, what are the priority issues which the leaders of US and Pakistan are likely to raise when they meet? Many analysts have stated the ties are getting back to normal after a tumultuous year or so, but what is the new normal. Pakistan’s support for Afghan reconciliation process and stopping cross border terrorism, are likely to be on the top of US list. On the other hand, Pakistan will demand respect for its sovereignty and assistance in helping the economy and energy shortages.

Whether one likes it or not, unfortunately, Pakistan is labeled as the epicenter of terror. Several extremist groups are known to have taken refuge in the lawless north west of the country and keep on wreaking havoc locally, in the region and beyond. Pakistan adopted a selective approach towards Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the India-oriented militants. Due to this discrimination, the government’s sincerity and intention is often suspected, including by some of its own citizens. This is despite the fact that the nation has suffered the most, in blood and treasure, in the conduct of this war. Thus talking with the TTP and the nation’s new counter terrorism strategy is of great interest, and Pakistan would have to carefully manage regional concerns and global perceptions.

For example, Indian apprehensions revolve around what extremists would do in the aftermath of NATO/US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its position remains that if Pakistan deals with the extremist groups such as LeT and JuD, the problem of Kashmir will be resolved by itself. As it relates to Karzai government, in its security talks with the US, it is seeking assurance of protection against intervention from Pakistan. The US has refused to offer such guarantees. Nonetheless, the fear of Afghan establishment persists. It continues to propagate why the NATO/US forces want to retain the right to conduct operations in Afghanistan when the source of problem resides elsewhere, a reference to FATA and Pakistan.

The US, for the most part, has remained sympathetic to Pakistan’s plight. After all, they jointly unleashed the genie during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Afterwards, Pakistan disseminated the lessons more widely. The country has actively cooperated with the US in going after the extremists that have been threatening both countries. In the evolving phase of the war against terror, the US would like to see Pakistan’s commitment to continue. It would also be interested in understanding its new counter-terrorism strategy, and how it addresses the concerns of Afghanistan and India. Both these countries are weary that in exchange for Pakistan’s help in Afghan reconciliation, the US may go soft on it.

On the other hand, in the post Mumbai incident environment, the US-India cooperation on countering terrorism in the region really took off, and the Raymond Davis incident was perhaps the outcome of that. While Pakistan has assisted the US in going after global extremists, that immunity does not automatically transfer towards seeking Afghan and Indian-oriented extremists. The Salala tragedy and Raymond incident tested Pakistan’s red lines. India meanwhile has conducted joint exercises with many nations, including the US Special Forces, envisioning counter-terror operations in the region.

This cat and mouse game is similar to the one Iran and US played over Iraq, and the wider region. The recent article by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker Magazine, covering the role of the commander of Iranian Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, indicates the breadth of exchanges between US and Iran. They never went directly at each other, but knew what the other was up to. This is the lesson of Cold War and almost an unwritten norm: great powers do not go head to head, and the use of proxies, whether via client-state or non-state actor, is considered fair play. The intent is always to keep things manageable.

No wonder, from Pakistan’s side, respect for state sovereignty and the drone issue will be on the top of the agenda. This remains a thorny issue as the US shifts to smart strategies and tactics in pursuit of extremists around the globe, especially where the state is weak or incapable of going after the extremists itself, as depicted by President Obama in his address to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. The dilemma for Pakistan is that it cannot maintain it would neither go after certain brands of extremists nor will it allow anyone else. Especially, when certain extremists are blatantly killing its civilians and weakening the state, while other elements are targeting the neighbors. Such a course will continue to raise suspicions about the state’s collusion, concerns about the security of its nuclear arms, and strengthen voices claiming genocide.

Meanwhile, American relations with the Islamic world are entering tumultuous times. The thaw with Iran is progressing, however, after Egypt and Saudi Arabia became the latest victim of disillusionment. The Saudis last week refused to accept the non-permanent membership of UN Security Council in protest against its dysfunction and double standards over Syria and the Palestinian plight. However, the crux of the matter was the Russian stand on Syria, which caused others to back off. With this context, it is fair to say that Pakistan has already placed its strategic bets on China and cuddling with the US will never be the same.

Arif Ansar is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com aansar@politact.com and tweets at @ArifAnsar.

This article first appeared in Pakistan Today, a leading newspaper of Pakistan. Click here to go to the original.

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