Sunday, January 26, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Jan 27, 2014

Pak-US strategic dialogue Pakistan and the US are due to restart their stalled strategic dialogue in Washington today. Pakistan will be represented by Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser. The talks take up where they left off because although the interaction began in 2010, it was interrupted again and again by crises in relations between the two sides, including the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. US Secretary of State John Kerry had announced the resumption of the dialogue during a visit to Islamabad in August last year. On the agenda are security, economic cooperation and seeking to build a blueprint for future ties. The resumption has only been made possible by concerted efforts by both sides during the last year and a half. While ostensibly on the surface things between the two countries appear to be better, there are serious questions regarding the way relations will play out around issues of mutual concern in the short, medium and long term. Afghanistan of course looms large on the horizon for both countries. Washington seeks Pakistan’s assistance to ensure its withdrawal process proceeds smoothly and leaves behind a negotiated political settlement between the Taliban and Kabul to stabilise Afghanistan and avoid a descent once again after the foreign troops leave into full-scale civil war in that country. It also hopes the PML-N government can address the serious domestic terrorism issues to stabilize Pakistan. The US may feel the Nawaz Sharif government would make a potentially stronger partner than the previous government since its political position is stronger. However, the Nawaz Sharif government’s performance so far has exposed its limitations in both matters. Domestically, the government has wasted many months in plugging its preferred option of talks with the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate peace. That effort has foundered on the Taliban’s refusal of talks and their escalating campaign of terrorist attacks throughout the country. Pakistan therefore is still wrestling with the hiatus and paralysis in its anti-terrorism policy. On Afghanistan, the PML-N government has stated repeatedly that Pakistan has no favourites in that country and supported an Afghan-owned and -led peace process. However, despite reports the government has made efforts to facilitate talks between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban, not much result can be seen. The more important issue is the presence of the Afghan Taliban in safe havens on Pakistani soil, permitting them to fight the US-NATO-Afghan army with relative success. Since these safe havens are the product of the military’s policy after 9/11, it is doubtful whether the Nawaz Sharif government, even if it were willing to try, could change that. So if the US is pinning its hopes for elusive stability in Pakistan and even more elusive stability in Afghanistan on the Nawaz Sharif government, this could turn out once again to be a difficult enterprise. Washington insists its relationship with Pakistan is about more than just Afghanistan. That may be true, although the past decades have inserted the Afghan issue between them with a vengeance. Taking Washington at its word, it needs to be asked whether the US realises how much mutual trust and confidence between the two sides has been eroded over the years by the gulf between them on perceived interests and a relationship that has not transcended the ups and downs of being confined to a transactional approach. The atmospherics are not helped by the hostility towards Pakistan in the US Congress, which has recently withheld $ 33 million from Pakistan over the Dr Shakil Afridi issue and threatens further aid cuts if the US Secretary of State is unable to certify annually that Pakistan is cooperating against terrorism. Perceptive observers are advising the US to include Pakistan in its Asia ‘pivot’ so as to allay the feelings of abandonment creeping into Islamabad’s feelings, a process of shrinkage that may otherwise increase once the US is out of Afghanistan. While hoping for the best outcomes in their strategic dialogue, one may be excused for reservations about the ability of the two countries to put the past and its attendant suspicions about each other behind them, cooperate on Afghanistan, and develop a blueprint that seeks permanent friendship, not an expedient one.

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