High level exchanges between Pakistan and the United States – the two countries that claim that their relationship is “integral to regional stability” – have always been keenly followed, and when it comes to the visit of Pakistan’s army chief to Washington, this interest is more pronounced because of the widely held perception that the army directs the country’s security and foreign policy.
General Raheel Sharif would be in the United States for a full working week from November 15 to November 20, meeting the top brass of both Pentagon and the State Department.
The general’s visit comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s trip to Washington, during which he held wide ranging discussions with President Obama, on regional security, counter-terrorism, defense cooperation, and strategic stability (nuclear issues), among other things.
There has been a lot of speculation about the agenda of the Army Chief’s trip, which is taking place on his own initiative. The army corps commanders, who met on Tuesday, have clarified that the upcoming trip is about regional issues. “The forum (corps commanders’ conference) discussed the upcoming visit of COAS to USA, where he will clearly highlight Pakistan’s perspective of new emerging regional realities,” the ISPR said in a statement following the meeting.
It is therefore undoubtedly about Afghanistan.
Gen Raheel, along with President Ashraf Ghani, made an attempt to repair the fractured Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship last year and facilitated the start of the now-stalled reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Is he carrying a new proposal for fixing the problems caused by renewed mutual mistrust due to breakdown of peace talks with Taliban and the accompanying increase in violence in the war torn country?
If one were to go by the whispers in Islamabad, Pakistan and Afghanistan have already held secret contacts for normalizing their relations. A high level visit from Pakistan to Kabul has already been planned, according to a source, for formalizing the renewal of ties. But Gen Sharif, in view of his not-so-good experience of working with the Afghan establishment, needs the US to act as an underwriter.
Pakistan’s nuclear mainstreaming will also be discussed
Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Janan Mosazai, speaking at a conference in Islamabad, said he was confident that Islamabad and Kabul would be able to salvage their relationship.
When the two countries have “frank and candid and open conversation, we can find solutions”, he said.
British High Commissioner Philip Barton, meanwhile, says: “Healthy relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are vital for stability, security and prosperity of the two countries, the region and the world. Peace processes are never easy, but in the end, dialogue is the only route to peace.”
The resumption of the reconciliation process is the next step in the scheme of things, a source explained, adding getting Pakistan-Afghanistan ties back on track is the priority.
President Obama’s advisor on South Asia Dr Peter Lavoy, who was in Islamabad apparently to prepare for General Sharif’s visit, conveyed the Afghan government’s willingness to resume the reconciliation process, during his meetings with his interlocutors. He also communicated Kabul’s concerns.
The Americans take the army chief seriously
An official, who attended a meeting with Dr Lavoy, said the Americans also need to understand Pakistan’s concerns and worries.
The Americans take the army chief seriously and hold him in high esteem. Therefore, any proposal that Gen Raheel carries with him would be considered seriously by Washington.
But at the same time, the US looks more appreciative of Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism and is also less concerned about the Haqqani Network, although they the issue is still not off their list of concerns relating to Pakistan.
Other issues, including the ongoing negotiations for Pakistan’s nuclear mainstreaming, tensions with India, and defense cooperation, are also on the agenda, but are not the focus of the trip, according to a senior military source.
Like Prime Minister Sharif’s trip, the army chief’s visit has also been preceded by a renewed debate about Pakistan’s nuclear program and the ways for the country’s mainstreaming into the nuclear world.
As the White House statement noted, ongoing negotiations would continue to build on the discussions that have already taken place, and the Americans would be sounding out the general on his ideas in this regard.
Think tanks close to the military here have already rejected the proposals floated by their Western counterparts. The position taken by Pakistani think tanks is a good indicator of how the military is thinking about the mainstreaming issue. Pakistan, which had been enthusiastically pushing its case for entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group, is not very keen about the terms being suggested for its admission.
Military officials say Gen Raheel would also reiterate Pakistan’s position on its strained ties with India and would urge US to play its role for defusing the situation.
The two sides would also talk about the ongoing counter-militancy operation Zarb-e-Azb during which the US would like to determine if Pakistan needs any assistance.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad