Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Barack Obama have their mutual “challenges” cut out for them because they are miles apart on strategic issues.
Both want an end to terrorism. Mr Obama says he seeks to “reduce terrorism in Pakistan” by means of drone strikes that target key terrorist leaders and combatants in FATA. But Mr Sharif says that drone strikes are actually fuelling terrorism because they kill innocent civilians and provide grist for the mills of the Taliban. Mr Obama wants concrete punitive action against the Lashkar-e-Tayba and Jamaat-ul-Dawa for sponsoring the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. But Mr Sharif doesn’t have the will or ability to deliver on this front.
Mr Sharif wants to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban and fashion separate policies on how to deal with them. The Afghan Taliban are to be facilitated to carve out a significant stake in Afghanistan while the Pakistani Taliban are to be neutralised via “peace talks” predicated on an end to drone strikes. But Mr Obama thinks all Taliban are anti-American partners with Al-Qaeda and must be degraded and destroyed.
Mr Sharif insists that Shakil Afridi is a CIA-sponsored criminal who should be punished for breaking Pakistani laws. But Mr Obama views him as an American hero who helped the US track down and kill the number one terrorist on America’s most wanted hit list. The former wants Afridi to languish in a wretched Pakistani prison while the latter is seeking to rehabilitate him with honours in the promised land.
Mr Sharif sees Dr Afia Siddiqui as a brave Pakistani citizen wrongly accused of terrorism and unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment in America. He wants to bring her home as a national heroine. But Mr Obama judges her as an Al-Qaeda agent who has admitted guilt and been rightly put into prison. A “swap” is not likely to be considered until an extradition treaty is signed and sealed.
Mr Sharif wants America to give greater market access to Pakistani textiles. But Mr Obama is not pushed enough to displease his southern constituents who benefit from current trade practices.
Mr Sharif wants America to nudge India to help resolve Kashmir and other disputes with Pakistan. But Mr Obama is steering clear of any third-party mediation.
Mr Sharif wants America to acknowledge and promote Pakistan’s key role and interest in a “stable, peaceful and united Afghanistan” after the bulk of US forces withdraw from the country next year. But Mr Obama has strongly signaled US interest in helping India, and not Pakistan, play such a role.
Mr Sharif wants to build the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to secure his country’s economy. But Mr Obama is determined to block Iranian oil and gas exports until it abandons its nuclear program, and will sanction any country or corporation that does such business with Iran.
The root of the problem is that the Pakistani “national security establishment” (GHQ and ISI) and media have become “anti-America” and America’s “national security establishment” (Pentagon and CIA) and media have become “anti-Pakistan” and both elected political leaders are being held hostage by their powerful establishments. Each has developed a visceral distrust of the other since the end of the cold war between the US and USSR in 1989 eroded the raison d’etre of their anti-communist partnership/alliance and progressively pitted the old concerns of Pakistan (India, Kashmir, strategic depth) with the new interests of America (containing China and expanding markets via strategic and economic investment in India).
But both retain a mutual interest in a working relationship. The US has a short-term interest in, and a long-term concern about, Pakistan. In the short term it wants Pakistan’s cooperation in withdrawing from Afghanistan in an orderly manner. This encompasses two dimensions: securing NATO weapons via the overland Pakistan route; and helping America get a degree of cooperation from the Taliban in ending civil war in post-America Afghanistan. In the longer term, the US is concerned about the spread of terrorism and extremism in the Af-Pak region that could endanger Pakistan’s nukes and India’s security. Pakistan also has immediate and longer-term requirements via a vis the US. It seeks swift US financial reimbursement for the Coalition Support Fund and US backing for a multi-billion IMF bail-out package. In the longer term, Pakistan wants to retain US support and influence to leverage its economic and military security in the region.
But if the challenge is formidable for both estranged partners, the outlook is not necessarily grim. The main architects of misplaced and wrong national security policy in both countries – Generals Pervez Musharraf, Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha in Pakistan, and President George Bush, General David Petreaus and Admiral Mike Mullen in the USA – have retired, opening up the possibility of gainful review by both sides. The most hopeful sign of all is the arrival of Nawaz Sharif, a pragmatic leader determined not to be a prisoner of past national security establishment paradigms.