“We recognize that Pakistan is a vital partner in supporting a secure Afghanistan, and we know how closely Pakistan’s own security is linked to Afghanistan’s success. That’s why addressing the threats posed to both Pakistan and Afghanistan by cross-border militancy is a key aspect of our conversations this week.” (John Kerry’s remarks at the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue: January 27, 2014)
After a hiatus of three years marked by irritants and breakdowns, Pakistan and the US embarked on a strategic dialogue. Pakistani delegate was headed Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security, Sartaj Aziz. The talks took 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.
The Strategic Priorities
A retrospective look at the events reveals that both the countries decided to resume this dialogue process during Mr Sharif’s recent visit to the US. They decided to revive five groups of which antiterrorism and non-proliferation are of higher importance.
The strategic priorities for the five working groups include:
(1) Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism;
(2) Economics and Finance;
(4) Security, Strategic Stability, and Non-Proliferation; and
(5) The Defense Consultative Group
Opening of the Dialogue
Given the age-old inbuilt resilience underlying the Pak-US relationship, the week-long strategic dialogue opened on a positive note – warranted more so now by the evolving regional geopolitics. During the talks, while US Secretary of the State, John Kerry, tried to project positivity in his opening remarks, Sartaj Aziz qualified his view of the Pakistan-US relationship with some persistent lacunae. While underlining the desire for a transition from a purely transactional relationship to one that could answer to the description of a deeper strategic one, Sartaj Aziz cautioned the US not to see Pakistan exclusively through the lenses of Afghanistan and terrorism. He dilated on Pakistan’s concerns by pointing out that Pakistan’s security considerations were neither taken account of by the US when it washed its hands of Afghanistan during the 1990s nor when it invaded and occupied that country in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.
It is to be understood that the interests of both countries in the evolving dynamics of the region can be different on many levels. 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.
Pakistan needs not only help of other countries but US as well to overcome these security problems. In the realm of economy, there is need that US considers the destabilization of its economy for being frontline state in the war against terrorism. Islamabad as a key ally and strategic partner then it should play due role in their development with focus on provision of latest military hardware to help contain insurgency, support them to resolve energy crisis and provision of market access.
While ostensibly on the surface things between the two countries appear 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. 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 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. 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. 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.
Keeping in view the above-mentioned facts, there is a need that bilateral relations should be sustainable promoting comprehensive and mutually beneficial cooperation and not on ad hoc basis. Pakistan was an independent and sovereign nation therefore it should not accept conditional aid and mismatched relations should be the part of theses dialogues. Recent conditions imposed by the US administration had not gone down well with the business community. Pakistan had paid heavily in the war on terror, it had drained public exchequer while increasing cost of doing business with common man as an ultimate victim, the responsibility of the outcome of dialogue lies on the negotiators of both the countries. Pakistan should try for a meaningful outcome while matters of lesser importance should not harm the negotiations.