Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be travelling to Washington next week on a working visit during which he will be meeting with President Obama on October 22.
This would be Mr Sharif’s second visit to the White House in this tenure. Unlike the usual US trips and the photo-ops that Pakistani prime ministers enjoy, a very serious agenda awaits Mr Sharif. Notwithstanding the positive feeling being exhibited by both sides ahead of the trip, the context is not very positive.
The preparations that have gone into this visit are a good indication of how serious the issues on the table are. Mr Sharif first sent his special assistant Tariq Fatemi as his emissary to Washington in July. That was officially described by the Foreign Office as a “lobbying” mission. The visit was followed by US National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s trip to Islamabad, during which she formally extended the invitation to Mr Sharif. A lot of quiet diplomacy has also been taking place on the sidelines of these engagements.
Pakistan could be offered to join the nuclear mainstream in return for limiting its program
The Obama administration did not grant Islamabad’s wish for a state visit and invited Mr Sharif on a working visit, because of which the prime minister curtailed his tour. That was an indication that all was not well.
The Americans have left no doubt that security issues will dominate Mr Sharif’s discussions at the White House, which is an area where the two countries do not have many convergences.
The visit “will be an opportunity to advance that goal so that we might deepen our partnership on the most pressing security challenges in South Asia,” said Peter Lavoy, special assistant to President Obama on South Asia.
The two major items on the agenda are Pakistan’s nuclear program and Afghanistan, diplomats from both sides confirmed in background discussions.
The United States desires assurances from Pakistan on restricting its nuclear program, which Western think tanks say is the fastest growing in the world.
The argument being discussed widely is that Pakistan should be stopped from going for “full spectrum deterrence” – an intention expressed by the country’s leadership on multiple occasions. Pursuit for full spectrum deterrence, it is feared, would enable Pakistan to achieve capability of hitting targets both in its neighbourhood as well as beyond.
Therefore, it is being suggested that Pakistan could be offered to join the nuclear mainstream in return for limiting its program to “strategic deterrence against India”. A major concern is the development of missiles.
The Haqqani Network will pop up during the dialogue
Pakistan could in this way gain an entry into nuclear cartels like NSG and other multilateral export control regimes – something for which Islamabad has long been building a case.
But Pakistan’s reply to this bargain, for now, is a categorical no.
The National Command Authority that met last month, shortly after the invitation was received, said Pakistan was compelled to maintain full spectrum deterrence capability because of the “regional security environment and… fast-paced strategic and conventional capabilities’ developments taking place in the neighbourhood.”
Foreign Office Spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said in response to a query on nuclear normalization: “Pakistan remains actively engaged with the international community, including the United States, on nuclear stability and security issues. Pakistan’s nuclear policy is shaped by evolving security dynamics of South Asia, growing conventional asymmetry, provocative doctrines and aggressive posturing by India, which obliges us to take all necessary measures to maintain a full spectrum deterrence capability in order to safeguard our national security, maintain strategic stability and deter any kind of aggression from India.”
Therefore, there is little for Mr Sharif to bargain on this issue with.
The other issue is Afghanistan. The United States desperately wants Pakistan to do something to bring stability in Afghanistan. Taliban’s recent operations in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Baghlan, and Takhar and the overall worsening security situation there – plus concerns about President Ashraf Ghani’s health – have added urgency to that desire.
The Pakistan-facilitated peace process faltered after Afghan intelligence disclosed Mullah Omar’s death ahead of the second round of talks planned for July 31. The subsequent power struggle within Taliban and the uptick in violence bleakened the prospects of reconciliation between the Afghan government and the insurgents. It also threw into disarray the improvement in Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations.
But lately, Pakistan has started a fresh effort to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. It is expected that the dialogue could be resumed after fighting recedes because of winter in a month or so.
Pakistani officials were particularly encouraged by a testimony by the NATO/US top commander in Afghanistan John Campbell before the Armed Services Committee of the US Senate, in which he had acknowledged the role played by Pakistan in fighting terror.
But, they probably missed this: “Aggressive PAKMIL operations over the last year have applied considerable pressure on extremists operating in the border region and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), although additional pressure must still be applied against Haqqani Network and the Taliban more broadly.”
It implies that the Haqqani Network remains an irritant and would, in all probability, pop up during the dialogue.
There are other areas where the talks would be less intense, like the cooperation that the US desires on climate change, economic reforms in Pakistan, and health.
On the whole, analysts say, it would be a challenging visit for Mr Sharif. Its outcome may not impact the contours of the relationship in coming months, but would shape the future of the ties in the longer term.
Another US visit that would be extremely important for the two countries would be that of Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, which is being scheduled for November.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad