The sixth Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue concluded in Washington on Tuesday without any headline-making developments. But the two sides promised to continue discussions on some of Pakistan’s expectations.
On the face of it, the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting includes words of appreciation from the Obama administration – for some measures taken by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in areas that are of interest to the US – and more commitments from the Pakistani government of ‘good conduct’ in the region.
The two countries have completed six rounds of the Strategic Dialogue since the process started in 2010, with the stated objective of broadening and deepening comprehensive bilateral cooperation, but the strategic agenda continues to be dominated by security concerns and Afghanistan.
The admission to this effect came from US Secretary of State John Kerry himself. While inaugurating the latest round of the talks he co-chaired with Pakistan’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, he said: “We also have to build a relationship that is multifaceted. We can and we should work together on a range of shared priorities, including trade, investment, education and energy…”
Pakistan will not get preferential access to US markets
Notwithstanding this acknowledgment, US concerns about security, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation dominated the Washington round. The discussions on cooperation in the fields of economy, energy and education are still not as substantive as these issues merit.
The Pakistanis went to the US with a wish list, which included fostering mutual trust, recognition of their regional concerns vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan, preferential access to US markets, continued counterterrorism cooperation, redefining defense cooperation, and help in dealing with issues pertaining to Afghanistan – more specifically border management.
The US promised to discuss all these issues – except for market access – in the subsequent working group meetings.
Islamabad could not have expected too much from Washington, which is heading towards presidential elections this year. The incumbent President Barack Obama is already a lame duck, especially on foreign policy issues. In line with US traditions, outgoing presidents do not make major new decisions after their final State of the Union address, which Obama delivered on January 12. Islamabad will have to wait until next year, when the new administration comes in, to see any movement on these issues.
More recently, the Americans have tended to publicly sound more respectful towards Pakistan, because of their regional expediencies. But all is not well, and terrorism fears continue to linger.
These fears were visible in the recent round of the Strategic Dialogue. Secretary Kerry said the Americans “recognize the extraordinary and real sacrifices that Pakistan’s military” had made, citing the Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the Prime Minister’s National Action Plan against terrorism. And he did not tell Pakistan to “do more” yet again. But he did make a general observation that “every country can do more to intensify to destroy and defeat violent radical extremists” and went on to raise continuing reservations about terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Kerry warned that these groups were “stealing” Pakistan’s future and sovereignty, besides creating problems in ties with neighbours.
So far, the US government has avoided issuing a Congressional certification that Pakistani actions in North Waziristan downgraded the Haqqani Network. The certification is required for payments to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund.
Pakistan renewed some of the older commitments in this regard like “taking effective action” against UN designated terrorist groups, including the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and making no distinction between good and bad terrorists. The Pakistani delegation also promised to “ensure that (Afghan) Taliban are unable to operate from Pakistani soil”. This assurance is a new commitment in the sense that it has not been stated so categorically before.
The two sides agreed on reinforcing cooperation in the fight against terrorism by building the capacity of Pakistan’s judicial system and law enforcement agencies to enforce the rule of law and combat terrorism and terror financing.
There was also an agreement on “enhancing bilateral cooperation and information-sharing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including through joint training, to better interdict the flow of illicit materials and narcotics.”
The United States has consistently maintained pressure on Pakistan to sign the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. That pressure has lately been ramped up. An indication to that effect could be found in Secretary Kerry’s opening remarks, where he made an oblique reference to this issue and prodded Pakistan to reduce its nuclear stockpiles.
“I think it’s important for Pakistan to really process that reality and put that front and center in its policy,” Kerry said after talking about the steps taken by US and Russia for reducing their nuclear warheads.
The joint statement issued after the meeting expressed “shared interest in strategic stability in South Asia and in pursuing increased transparency.”
It may be implied as a backing for the Pakistani proposal for a regional nuclear restraint regime for South Asia, which has been on the table since 1998 and was renewed at the National Command Authority meeting last week.
Kerry also referred to shared concerns about nuclear security. Kerry’s choice of words notwithstanding, it may heighten fears at home about US intentions about Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will visit Washington for a Nuclear Security Summit on March 31.
Defense cooperation has always been the bed rock of the ties between the two countries. It is believed to be the reason behind the resilience of their relationship, helping them overcome all the challenges that came in the way.
Defense ties are currently overseen by a Defense Consultative Group. But Sartaj Aziz called for “a structured and mutually agreed platform” to tune it to the needs of an enduring cooperation.
“Both sides underscored the importance of bilateral defense cooperation as serving their mutual interest and noted their willingness to explore new avenues to refine defense collaboration,” the statement said.
Regional concerns are probably one area where Pakistan received some clear support from the United States.
There was a consensus on supporting the reconciliation process to restore peace in Afghanistan. Washington also backed Islamabad’s position on dialogue with New Delhi.
Without naming India, the statement said: “The delegations underscored that all parties in the region should continuously act with maximum restraint and work collaboratively toward reducing tensions.”
The US praised measures taken by Pakistan against Jaish-e-Muhammad, including the detention of its leader Masood Azhar, and Islamabad’s promise to bring the perpetrators of the Pathankot terrorist attack to justice.
Trade and investment:
Pakistan has long been demanding preferential access to US markets on the lines of a similar deal with the European Union. Sartaj Aziz repeated that demand. “Now is the time when the US, as a key ally and a close partner, would also help by extending preferential access to Pakistani exports in the US market, at least for some products,” he said. “This would go a long way in helping Pakistan turn around its economy.”
But, the Americans are hardly ready to do so. Instead, they talk about enhancing trade and investment in broader terms and helping Pakistan make itself economically competitive and attractive for foreign investors.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad