As often happens in international diplomacy, world leaders take advantage of multilateral forums to conduct bilateral business on the sidelines of the main menu. That is what the meeting of US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Seoul Nuclear Summit represents. It goes without saying that any meeting between Pakistani and US officials these days evokes great interest. Even cancelled meetings are cause for comment. How much more importance then does this encounter at the highest level since the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bi laden acquire does not require explication. In the media interaction after the one-on-one discussion, it was obvious from the words and body language of both leaders that a concerted mutual effort was being made to find a mutually acceptable formulation that would assist both sides to grope their way towards a restoration of their seriously fraught relationship. It is by now well known what were the developments over the last year or so that brought things to this pass. Briefly, the steady downward spiral in relations can be marked from the Raymond Davis affair, through the Abbottabad raid to the Salala check post killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Since the Pakistan government decided to review the ties with the US to put them on a more equal footing that recognises and respects Pakistan’s concerns regarding its sovereignty and other issues, and that review is currently before a joint session of parliament, President Obama expressed the hope that the parliamentary review would be balanced and respect the US’s security needs vis-à-vis terrorism. In his remarks Obama also underlined respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty, which has become a real bone of contention since the Abbottabad raid since in the Pakistani perspective, it violated Pakistan’s air and territorial sovereignty. Gilani therefore was appreciative of Obama’s references to Pakistan’s sovereignty. So while much ‘respect’ was on offer from both sides, and the usual ritual formulations about a stable Pakistan and Afghanistan being in everyone’s interests were reiterated, the lingering tension between the two ostensible allies was obvious. At best the meeting can be described as putting a measured (not best) public face on a severely damaged diplomatic relationship.
The White House could not be drawn on whether the contentious issue of drone strikes was discussed. Nevertheless, a report in the media has revealed that Pakistan rejected a US offer of concessions on drone attacks such as advance notice of attacks and limits on the types of targets. The issue has become a hot potato in Pakistani politics, with many political parties and forces agitating against drone strikes, seen by many as again violative of Pakistani sovereignty and counter-productive because of collateral civilian casualties. Whether the report is true or not, it may not be beyond the realm of possibility, given that the drones issue has been inserting itself into the US-Pakistan equation from time to time. It has even found an echo in the debate currently underway in a joint session of parliament in which the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) are being examined. Whereas the report on the drones concessions argues that the actual level and nature of the interaction between Washington and Islamabad is more positive than it appears at first glance, and this may be strengthened by the report that Generals Allen and Kayani have met, the mood of the opposition in Pakistan is anything but sanguine. Their strong resistance during the session has caused delay and their detailed objections to the recommendations have forced the head of the PCNS, Senator Raza Rabbani, to state in the house that in line with the government’s approach of seeking consensus on the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments, they would not attempt to railroad these recommendations through parliament. He also pointed out that the recommendations were the result of the PCNS’s confabulations in which all parties, and not just the treasury benches, were represented. The recommendations therefore, Senator Rabbani argued, could not be seen as a purely government set of proposals. They represented the broad sense of the PCNS. If US-Pakistani engagement is difficult enough, the debate in parliament offers little prospect of an early conclusion, and quite possibly the end result will not be consensual.