ISLAMABAD - As expected, there has been much debate in the media about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first bilateral visit to the US with the government billing it as “highly successful”, critics calling it a “complete failure” and Opposition labelling it as a “big flop”. The truth lies somewhere between these extreme declarations. It helped the two countries to engage further on important bilateral issues. It was not an earth-shaking diplomatic event. Few are.
For the government to term the visit “highly successful” is indicative of the fact that its expectations were low and realistic. It obviously did not expect that the US Administration would agree to immediate cessation of drone strikes or execute a mega aid package to Pakistan. Neither did it expect securing a civil nuclear technology deal or American support for the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project or getting the green light on repatriation of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui to Pakistan.
While the government obviously went through the motion of raising all these issues and stating its position on each score, it focused more on the ‘doables’ and ‘achievables’ like the US support for market access, energy projects, particularly in financing of Bhasha and Dasu dams, education sector and assistance in counter-terrorism efforts. And the fact that on all these the government managed to get assurances from the US Administration seems a positive beginning.
An important decision for Pakistan is the meeting of Pakistan-US energy group next month to be followed by a US organised trade mission to meet US energy companies in Houston, Texas. Equally important is President Obama’s announcement that the US Trade Representative would invite his Pakistani counterpart to hold a council meeting of the US-Pakistan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Then of course the resumption of delayed Pakistan-US sectoral Strategic Dialogue early next year.
US has been briefed on Pakistan's decision to engage the TTP. On the issue of drones there is greater understanding with some signals that there will be further reduction in drone strikes. Maybe even suspend drone attacks temporarily to facilitate dialogue with TTP. A precondition to the talks by the Taliban has been end to these controversial and deadly drone strikes.
On US response to Pakistan's dialogue with the TTP Information Minister Pervez Rashid was quoted as saying that “the US has not only given Pakistan a go-ahead for initiating peace talks with Taliban but also assured it of help to make the negotiations successful.” Given how controversial the dialogue with TTP is considered in some circles within Pakistan, the PM considered it important to explain his stance in Washington.
Responding to Washington’s demand regarding release of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the doctor who aided CIA operatives in their search for most wanted Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Ladin, the Pakistani side repeated Islamabad’s established position-that Dr. Afridi is “no hero”. That he violated Pakistani law and is being tried by Pakistani courts that will take a decision on this matter.
It is also important that during the visit Pakistan’s position and concerns on vital issues including the regional situation and Indian role in Afghanistan post 2014 were comprehensively conveyed. This is the first necessary step towards removing the existing irritants and trust-deficit between the two war-on-terror allies trying to mend ties that have soured since 2011.
Obviously bilateral relations are based on processes not a one-time event. Events contribute to eventual outcomes over a period of time. Rebuilding ties that have been in high strain is a process and there can be no quick fixes. The fixing process was started in the post-Salala period during the last government. It is now continuing. The mending job takes time. It requires confidence-building over issues, through specific steps and over time. PML-N government's claim that all targets of the visit have been achieved seems out of place!
Finally, the visit was useful as it led to better understanding and bridging of differences on some key issues like drones and the Taliban, paving the way for a more meaningful engagement and bilateral cooperation in areas important for Pakistan’s economic revival and national security objectives. In the weeks and months ahead more collaboration is expected, though strictly on give and take basis. There are no free lunches, for no one and nowhere. We need to get in shape at home, rest will follow.