WASHINGTON - The United States sees Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to this capital city an opportunity to "broaden and deepen" its relationship with Pakistan in preparation of the pull out of most combat forces and military equipment from Afghanistan next year, for which it needs Islamabad's cooperation, according to American officials.
In an obvious bid to improve the atmosphere for the Oct 20-24 visit of Pakistani premier, the US has reportedly decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan that was suspended when relations between the two countries were at an all-time low following the unilateral raid that killed Osama bin Laden and deadly US airstrikes against Pakistani soldiers.
Officials and congressional aides, cited by an American news agency, said the ties have improved enough for the resumption of aid. American and Nato supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan are open, it was pointed out. Controversial US drone strikes are down. The US and Pakistan recently announced the restart of their "strategic dialogue" after a long pause.
Sharif is due to meet President Obama on October 23 (Wednesday, according to Pakistani time) for the highest level White House talks between the two countries since the start of the US administration in 2009, a US official said. On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry will hold talks with the Pakistani leader.
“It’s an opportunity to broaden and deepen the relationship that we’ve both been working very hard towards in the last few years.” Topping the agenda are likely to be counter-terrorism efforts, as well as Pakistan’s concerns over its economy and energy supply, the official said.
Over three weeks in July and August, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development informed Congress that it planned to restart a wide range of assistance, mostly dedicated to helping Pakistan fight terrorism. Other funds focus on a range of items, including help for Pakistani law enforcement and a multibillion-dollar dam in disputed territory.
US-Pakistani relations have weathered numerous crises in recent years. The State Department, which told Congress that the US hadn’t conducted any significant military financing for Pakistan in 2011 and 2012, stressed the importance now of enhancing Pakistan’s anti-terrorism capabilities through better communications, night vision capabilities, maritime security and precision striking with F16 fighter jets.
The department told Congress on July 25 that it would spend $295 million to help Pakistan’s military. Twelve days later it announced $386 million more. A pair of notifications arriving on Aug 13 and worth $705 million cantered on helping Pakistani troops and air forces operating in the militant hotbeds of western Pakistan, and other counterinsurgency efforts.
The administration had until the end of September to provide Congress with “reprogramming” plans at the risk of forfeiting some of the money, which spans federal budgets from 2009-2013. In its notifications to Congress, the department described fighting terrorism as a mutual concern.
State Department officials, according to AP, said the money would start reaching Pakistan in 2014 but take several years to disburse fully. They said the renewal of aid wasn’t determined by any single event. But they noted a confluence of signs of greater cooperation, from Pakistan’s improved commitment to stamping out explosives manufacturing to its recent counterterror offensive in areas bordering Afghanistan that have served as a primary sanctuary for the Taliban.
PM Sharif, whose PML-N party swept the May polls, has been praised by American officials for his efforts to reduce tensions in South Asia. “There have been significant irritants which I think have reduced quite a bit over the course of the last year,” the US official said.
Washington needs Pakistan’s cooperation as it prepares to withdraw thousands of pieces of heavy equipment from Afghanistan ahead of the end of NATO combat operations at the end of 2014. It is also looking to Pakistan to try to help with reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and Afghan leaders.
The United States, the official said, also wants the Pakistani government to do more to crack down on militant havens. Pakistan, meanwhile, is chafing at continued US drone strikes against militants on its territory.
Drones are “part of a very comprehensive conversation we have on security across the board,” the US official said. “As we talk about all these security issues that will be a key theme, not drones necessarily, but the security situation writ large.”
Prime Minister Sharif is also expected to call for expansion in trade and economic areas and making such cooperation the defining foundation for an enduring relationship in view of the repeated ups and downs in the ties in the past decades.
According to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who was in Washington last week for World Bank-IMF meetings, the prime minister believes in fostering long-term relations on the basis of aid, and not aid.
Pakistan-India relations may also figure during the meeting. Prime Minister Sharif is also expected to express Pakistan’s views in the regional security perspective, particularly in view of 2014 Afghan transition and implications of the developments in the neighboring country for Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will also meet with members of Pakistani-American community and inform them about the government’s development agenda as well as its efforts to steer the country out of energy crisis.