When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last visited a US president some fourteen years ago, it was on the US Independence Day, July 4, 1999. President Bill Clinton was in the White House and the prime minister of Pakistan had come on an urgent mission to seek the president’s intervention to avert a potentially catastrophic nuclear war with India over the Kargil conflict. He did not remain a prime minister for long, however, and was overthrown three months later by General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief.
Nawaz Sharif’s latest visit to Washington was under less ominous circumstances. He was elected six months ago with a clear majority by the Pakistani electorate, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, as he frequently reminded his audience here, he had taken office following a peaceful and orderly transition from one democratically elected government to another. Even before he arrived, as a gesture of goodwill, the US released more than $1.6 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan that had been frozen since 2011. The request for an additional $1.16 billion in next year’s budget is awaiting Congressional approval.
Even though the relationship with Pakistan over the years has been turbulent and contentious, the US extended a red carpet treatment to Sharif, welcoming him to the White House with a marine honor guard lining up to greet him. On October 20, the day he arrived, he was invited to an official dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry at the lavish State Department dining room. The following day, he was the guest of Vice President Joseph Biden at a breakfast meeting at his official residence, the three-storied, imposing Victorian-style mansion on the naval observatory grounds. While her husband conducted official business, Begum Kalsoom Nawaz Sharif, who holds a doctorate in Urdu poetry and literature, was entertained by the first lady, Michelle Obama, and the vice president’s wife, Dr Jill Biden, as the guest of honor at a poetry and tea party reception.
[quote]Some of us were struck by the dignified bearing that he seems to have developed in the intervening years[/quote]
The electronic media did not give much coverage to the visit. Washington, after all, is used to the comings and goings of world leaders. Besides, the country is absorbed in its own internal problems – the recent government shutdown and the relentless ongoing partisan battles on the implementation of the universal health insurance law, Obama’s signature achievement. However, the coverage of the prime minister’s visit in the print media was substantial. The Washington Post, normally a dour publication that strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq, lamented in an editorial that since Nawaz Sharif took over “little has changed in the security matters most important to the United States.” Yet, it expressed the optimism, that “the display of relative competence offers hope that he may eventually join with the military in adopting a more rational policy towards the Taliban and other Islamist militants.”
The liberal New York Times confined itself to dissecting the nature of the rocky relationship between the two countries, while severely chastising the Obama administration in an editorial for its excessive reliance on drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and the Yemen, urging a policy of “greater transparency and accountability” to avoid innocent civilian loss of life. Pakistan’s clear unhappiness on the drone attacks received some support in a report from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that coincided with the Sharif visit, detailing significant civilian causalities from the drone strikes. Another controversy, meanwhile, arose from an embarrassing report from the Washington Post revealing that the drone strikes were carried out with the tacit approval and knowledge of the previous Pakistani government.
The highlight of Sharif’s visit was the 90-minitute oval office meeting with the US president and vice president. It had been speculated that the meeting would be difficult for both sides. Several contentious issues have recently bedeviled the relationship between Pakistan and the US, the most important irritant being the extensive use of drones in the semiautonomous tribal regions of Pakistan. The peace negotiations with Taliban in Afghanistan, the killing of Osama bin Laden by the US marines and the accidental killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers by US airstrikes have all contributed to an uneasy relationship. In their remarks after their oval office meeting, however, the tensions were couched in the usual diplomatic language. While the prime minister, reading from a prepared text, listed the issue of drones strike as his major concern, the president did not mention it, giving no hint that he planned to order a halt.
Nawaz Sharif addressed only two public meetings here. One was at a gathering of Pakistani-Americans at a local hotel and the other to a packed audience, comprising mostly young American professionals, at the prestigious United States Institute of Peace. In a prepared statement, he emphasized the need for good relations with India, remarking that, “Had our two countries not wasted their precious resources in a never-ending arms race, we would not only have avoided the futile conflicts, but also emerged as stable and prosperous nations.” Mr Sharif seemed to be having some throat irritation problems as he read his statement; but, overall, he came across as poised and his delivery went smoothly. It is unfortunate that there was no opportunity for the audience to ask questions, and Jim Marshall, President of the Institute, only asked a few “soft” questions.
The Greater Washington area is home to a large, prosperous Pakistani-American community, many of whom are professionals. The reaction to the visit was positive, as many take pride in the peaceful and dignified transfer of power in Pakistan, a welcome break from unceasing depressing news of terrorist attacks and ethnic violence. Some of us, who had heard Nawaz Sharif speak on a previous visit when he was the leader of the opposition, were struck by the new air of confidence that he exuded and the dignified bearing that he seems to have developed in the intervening years. Mr Zafar Mirza, a retired executive and political activist who listened to his speech at the Peace Institute, thought that “despite his occasional problems at the podium with paper shuffling, Mr Sharif addressed almost all the important points, including drone attacks, economy, Taliban attacks, while urging American companies to invest in Pakistan.”
It is unclear whether the visit will yield any tangible benefits. There is, however, general agreement that ultimately, Mr Nawaz Sharif will be judged not by the success or failure of his foreign trips, but by his ability to effectively deal with domestic problems— the energy shortage, the economic difficulties, and importantly, the Taliban insurgency that threatens the very foundation of the state.
spot it. worry less smile on OBAMA’S face. worried smile on Nawaz’s face.
will he or will he not agree to stop drones. will he will he not enhance aids, supply of ARMs
will he will he not tell indians to get out of kashmir
will he will he not stop praising Bangalore software challenges
when i go back what will i tell irritating IMRAN
Oh, once i go back what will i tell media
No worries about MNAs they will be quiet
how will i control LOC noise, inflation, current account deficit, energy, railways, karachi unrest, baloch upheaval, taliban, Imran
Oh GOD, why did i get elected !