By this time last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharrif arrived in Washington to meet President Obama on his first official visit to US since Sharif’s election.
The Washington visit is important for various reasons. First and foremost, due to its powerful symbolism, given that it’s the first bilateral meeting since Obama commenced his second term in the White House and Sharif took power in Pakistan.
Secondly, the visit may not achieve substantial breakthroughs but since Pak-US relationship has always been individual led rather than institutionalized; it provides an opportunity for both regimes to continue talking on tough issues.
Broadly speaking, Pak-US anti-terror alliance has remained troubled ever since President Musharraf in a well-orchestrated strategic decision took a historic ‘U’ turn on Afghanistan and decided to join US-led war on terrorism. But especially, in recent times, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the United States has further theatrically exaggerated and frayed since the year 2011. At one point, the two countries became divorced from each other. The incidents like Salala Base attack, the blockade of crucial NATO supply routes by Pakistan, the subject of drone attacks and above all, the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a safe hideout located just a few miles away from Pakistan’s premier military academy in a covert operation by US Marine forces are only indicative of stark divergence and misconceptions between the two countries.
Perhaps the tensions confronting this relationship for the last decade are more or less the same: Drone strikes, terrorists’ safe havens in tribal areas of Pakistan, Pakistan’s support to Afghan Taliban and its lack of will to contend Pakistani Taliban and organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Pakistan’s links with the Haqqani network, anti-India militant outfits in Pakistan, Pakistan’s relations with Iran, nuclear weapons and etc. The reason the two have failed to reach consensus is because both sides perceive their national interests as opposed to other side’s preferences.
To be sure, this entire list of issues is intimately linked to the single imperative that continues sticking Pakistan and the United States together – Afghanistan. Although one could argue the wisdom behind such opposing understanding and more importantly why the two countries have failed to move beyond looking at each other from the prism of Afghanistan for the last three decades, into building an institutionalized bilateral relationship? Which also raises another equally disturbing question what will be the future course of Pak-US relationship beyond 2014 when Americans so called occupation of Afghanistan will no longer be the front line news?
The stark reality is that these divergences will persist for the foreseeable future even after Nawaz returns from Washington visit. Pakistan will continue chafing at the continued US drone strikes, while US will keep being vociferous with Pakistan – dangling few carrots and imposing few sticks, in demanding crack down on militant safe heavens.
However, the crises in Pak-US relationship are not novel to Nawaz Sharrif. In the 1990’s, when Mr. Sharif was in the driving seat, the Kashmir dispute had aggravated the mutual apprehensions between Pakistan and the United States to the extent that Pakistan was at the verge of being declared a terrorism-sponsoring state because of its implicit support, material as well as tactical, to the Kashmiri insurgents. Sharif acted with due diligence and was able to amend the damage that had already been incurred.
Similarly on Afghanistan, Nawaz Sharif was the front man in 1990’s when the United States and Pakistan worked closely to decide the fate of Kabul devoid of any communist influence while in complete absence of any direct Afghans participation. Now 21 years later, the task is exactly the same – delivering a successful closure to Afghan War and letting the people of Afghanistan to decide the fate of their country. Mr. Sharif could be the man for the job to do it.
As argued earlier, the strategic divergences are too many. Expecting too much outcomes from this visit may be self-hurting, but for Pakistan and the United States, to disengage from the past narratives and reconnect effectively for the stability in the region- talk, talk and talk is the only solution.
Above all, Mr. Sharrif’s proceeding two terms as Prime Minister shows, that especially when it comes to US, India and Afghanistan; he knows how to get the job done.