ISLAMABAD - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first summit meeting in Washington with US President Barrack Obama Wednesday will likely define how this relationship progresses in the next five years and to what extent will the PML-N government manage to negotiate its way through the ‘big ticket items’ - issues of mega dams, market access, Afghan peace process, regional security, nuclear technology and US drone attacks all falling in this category.
In Washington, Nawaz Sharif is likely to underscore what his team calls Pakistan’s significant “Circle of Friends Strategic Initiative”. It aims to proactively create a circle of friends of Pakistan, aimed at improving ties with Afghanistan, India and Iran besides further strengthening relations with China. An initiative where emphasis would be on having cordial and trading relationship with neighbouring countries.
Islamabad and Washington both appear to view this summit with measured optimism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Obama will lead their teams to clear way for enhanced cooperation particularly in counter-terrorism, defence, trade, energy and education sectors.
The irony of this summit is not lost on many, especially in Pakistan. In the 14 years since Mian Nawaz Sharif last met a US President in Washington to work out a face-saving arrangement for Pakistani troops’ exit from Kargil, he has been removed in a military coup, imprisoned, convicted in a hijacking case and been in self-exile before being elected Pakistan’s Prime Minister a third time.
Now Sharif will again hold talks with another Democrat President at the White House to take forward a relationship that is being steered through troubled waters in its current post-Salaala phase since 2012.
On terrorism, the Prime Minister will convey to President Obama Pakistan’s opposition to unilateral use of drones and at the same time solicit greater US technical support in counter-terrorism efforts. He will demand discontinuation of the illegal and highly controversial drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Little breakthrough is expected though. Washington is likely to insist that use of precision technology in drone strikes ought to be palatable for Islamabad if targets are shared in advance with Pakistan as it is reportedly already doing. Officials privately concede that drone attacks are unlikely to stop until the US hunt for the current Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri continues. A definite list has already been provided to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s defence requirements with a specific list of equipment it needs for security will also be flagged. Within the context of ongoing security cooperation, early resumption of the Pakistan-US strategic Dialogue will be sought.
Pakistan’s commitment to responsible security approach and policy is demonstrated through the reconstitution of the Defence Cabinet Committee as the Cabinet Committee on National Security – a feat that will be shared with Washington. Islamabad expects the US administration to register its efforts at seeking national consensus on terrorism through the All Parties Conference, to opt for dialogue as the first option and military action as the last resort in dealing with terrorists.
On Afghanistan again, Pakistan will state its clear position of playing a supportive role and facilitating the all-inclusive Afghan peace and reconciliation process and having no favourites. Also Pakistan will advocate a more region-centric policy on Afghanistan. Pakistan would also share its security concerns vis a vis Afghanistan and India following the drawdown of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan by end 2014 and India’s role in the region.
According to sources close to the PM, he will be looking for US cooperation to put the country back on the road to economic recovery and seek greater market access. Ending the energy crisis in Pakistan will also be high on the agenda. In this context Pakistan will share with the US its energy strategy to assess the form and extent of assistance the US would be willing to extend in this area.
Pakistan will particularly solicit Washington’s support for funding of multi-billion dollar hydro-power projects such as Dasu dam and the Diamir Bhasha dam, considered as life-line for the national economy. “We believe that the World Bank can play a more proactive role with American endorsements,” a key aide of the Prime Minister told this Correspondent. “We expect the US to show better understanding of our energy requirements and extend all possible cooperation on this vital issue,” he added. While civil nuclear technology will be sought from the US, the priority big item for energy to be raised will be help on the two mega dams.
On the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, the Prime Minister will underscore its necessity given Pakistan’s growing energy needs. The Pakistan side will also reiterate the fact that it is locked into an agreement with Iran under which it would lose US$ 3 million a day if it failed to fulfil its obligations.
Interestingly, improved Iran-US relations may lead to decrease in Washington’s antagonism over the project. Pakistan’s comprehensive position has already been conveyed in a non paper to the US secretary of State John Kerry during his visit here in August.