U.S. and Pakistan: An uneasy thaw

Islamabad, Aug.7 (ANI): U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concluded his visit to Pakistan last week. The off-again-on-again trip came on the heels of the Vice President Joe Biden's visit to India, suggesting perhaps that the U.S. does not want to be perceived as lumping the two countries together.

Pakistan, in addition, wishes to be delinked from Afghanistan too. Insistence on a strategic dialogue and partnership with the U.S. has been a Pakistani demand for some time. But Pakistani interference in Afghanistan is such that no strategic dialogue is possible without addressing this transaction first, especially with the 2014 U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan looming.

Mr. Kerry's rather low-key visit is perhaps a soft reset of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship oriented primarily towards Afghanistan and not a jumpstart despite a pledge to resume the strategic dialogue.

Mr. Kerry's visit was obviously timed to meet and greet the new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It came after a considerable cool off period since the extreme rancor between the countries over a series of 2011 events, including the Raymond Davis saga, Osama Bin Laden's discovery and killing near the Pakistani military academy and the Salala episode where several Pakistani soldiers were killed.

Fortunately for Mr. Kerry, he did not have to put out any major diplomatic fires during this round. From the pre-visit background briefings by the State Department, it seems that either the U.S. is a bit too optimistic about Mr. Nawaz Sharif taking the helm, or is keeping up the pretense ostensibly to start with a clean slate as the new Pakistani dispensation takes charge.

Going in, Mr. Kerry's State Department team appeared to be lauding not just Mr. Sharif's economic reforms agenda, focus on energy sector, ties with India and his advisor Mr. Sartaj Aziz's Kabul visit, but also the "constructive cooperation from the Pakistanis" - civilian and military- that they are receiving in Afghanistan! On what the State Department called "cross-border militancy" and safe havens for extremist groups, their view was that while it threatens the US and its allies in the region, it is Pakistan that has borne the brunt of terrorism with 40,000 lives lost.

It seems that the U.S. is buoyed about a civilian government taking charge in Pakistan with a comfortable parliamentary majority and rightly calls its stability the centerpiece of the US policy towards that country.

But, in all likelihood, the U.S. is perhaps overestimating both the capacity and will of the new Pakistani incumbent. Mr. Sharif neither has a history of addressing the primary problems nor has he revealed any new ideas or roadmap sixty days into the present stint. Mr. Sharif's squabbles with his country's powerful military were never about processes, but individuals. His desire in his past terms was to be able to hire and fire army chiefs at whim without addressing the fundamentals of civil-military relations and the national security and foreign policies.

Mr. Sharif oversaw a blatant Pakistani intervention in Afghanistan in his first term (1990-93), recognized the Taliban regime in his second term (1997) and virtually slept through his army's infiltration in Kargil towards the end of that term (1999). In the recent past, the Punjabi Taliban and India-oriented jihadists had a field day when his party governed the Punjab province. In the first 50 days of Mr. Sharif's current term there have been as many terrorist attacks including massive bombings killing the Shiite and a spectacular jailbreak where terrorists freed 250 of their cohorts. But instead of rushing to any action or formulation of a national security policy, Mr. Sharif took off for the non-obligatory Umrah pilgrimage to Makkah.

This cannot be lost on the Mr. Kerry but, his objectives during the current visit were less lofty perhaps. Mr. Kerry has mentioned quite clearly that the 2014 was a drawdown not a withdrawal date and that the US and Afghanistan will soon reach an agreement regarding the US forces remaining there.

But an orderly and safe extraction of troops from Afghanistan is what the U.S. seems more concerned about. The optimism smacks of appeasement, even if temporary. When asked about ending the drone attacks Mr. Kerry's misspoke that "the (US) President has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon". This remark and his shaky defense of the drone strikes at a press conference suggest that either he was not in a confrontational mood or his heart - like his boss Mr. Barack Obama's - is not in the fight.

Mr. Kerry's low profile nudge to bring Taliban and even the Haqqani Network to the table, despite expressing concerns about both, is reflective of a policy of containment and maintaining status quo. At this stage the U.S. is neither expecting nor pushing for a change in Pakistani policy vis-a-vis its jihadist proxies operating in Afghanistan. Barring a major Pakistan-incited and sponsored catastrophe in Afghanistan the U.S. is unlikely to confront it. Pakistan's mild chastising by Mr. Kerry over the gas pipeline from Iran also pertains more to the U.S.' Middle East policy and developments there, especially in Syria. In fact, the Middle East and encircling Iran are the front burner foreign policy issues in the US presently. Were it not for the drone gaffe Mr. Kerry's visit would have gone almost unnoticed at home.

The powers like India and Russia must watch this uneasy U.S.-Pakistan thaw closely as the US may leave Afghanistan as an unfinished business and largely to the whims of Pakistan. India has exercised remarkable restraint in not getting drawn into Afghanistan against Pakistan. But a serious possibility exists that a vacuum left by the U.S. exit or a partial and inert presence may necessitate Afghanistan's friendly powers to bolster its economy and defense. Mr. Kerry's visit does little to alleviate the fears within Afghanistan that Pakistan will continue to try pushing its proxies on Kabul. U.S. engagement with Pakistan is certainly a welcome move but one hopes that the region does not have to pay its price.

(Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a regular columnist for Daily Times, Pakistan and can be reached at mazdaki@me.com or via Twitter @mazdaki) By Mohammad Taqi (ANI)

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