WASHINGTON - With the United States anxious to withdraw from Afghanistan safely using Pakistan’s roads to move troops and equipment, the top diplomats of the two countries resume talks on Monday to look for ways to re-frame Washington-Islamabad relations aimed at ensuring regional stability.
The “strategic dialogue” to build a comprehensive sustainable partnership between the two countries has remained interrupted since 2011 when 24 Pakistani soldiers at a post near the border with Afghanistan died in a US airstrike following some other incidents that caused tensions in their relations.
Ahead of the meeting, State Department officials stressed the need for cooperative economic, security and energy ties between the two countries. One point that officials here stressed was that the US would continue to maintain ties with Pakistan on account of its potential even as US and Nato forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced a resumption of the talks during a visit to Islamabad in August, will hold the dialogue in Washington with Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s national Security Adviser.
A senior State Department official said the talks would look at both security and economic cooperation and seek to build a “blueprint” for future ties.
“Having seen the highs and lows of this relationship,” the official said on condition of anonymity, “both countries have put an enormous amount of effort into assiduously putting this relationship on firmer grounding over the last year and a half.”
The day-long dialogue will be the first high-level consultations between the two countries after the October meeting between US President Barack Obama and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Officials said apart from bilateral issues and Afghanistan, India is expected to figure in the talks. “We are very interested in Pakistan’s relationship with India and seeing improvements in that. We’d encourage both sides in that regard,” the US official said. “We’ve also talked about relations with India, the prospect for improvement there. Again, this is an area that Prime Minister Sharif has emphasised. He’s taken some initiatives. He’s met with his Indian counterpart. I expect they’ll want to tell us about what they see as the prospects in that regard,” the official said.
Noting that the obstacles in improving Indo-Pak economic relationship is primarily political, the official claimed, there is no doubt that it is Pakistan, which would benefit the most from any increased trade and business activities between the two South Asian neighbours.
“It’s our view, and I believe it’s the view of any Pakistani economist that’s looked at it, that the benefits that flow from improved trade between India and Pakistan flow overwhelmingly to Pakistan,” the official said.
“So we don’t need to provide any incentives to Pakistan to do something that’s obviously in its own economic interest. The obstacles to improving the economic relations with India have largely been political and security over the years,” the official said in response to a question.
“So American economic incentives aren’t going to overcome that. What has to overcome is the recognition that these are two countries that are going to have to live together permanently and that they have overwhelming benefits to be realised by opening their borders and increasing trade,” the Senior State Department official said. Another senior State Department official said the Obama Administration wants to listen from the Pak leadership on its view on its relationship with India and how it wants to go forward.
“We have been in listening mode to both India and to Pakistan. We would love to hear more about the Commerce Minister meeting last week, some of the other efforts underway. And if there’s a role that we can play we’d be happy to discuss that. But we are here to hear and listen as well as to talk,” the second senior State Department official said.
The United States, which formed security partnership with Pakistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is seeking Islamabad’s assistance again as it pulls tens of thousands of troops from Afghanistan this year and Washington ends its longest-ever war.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has grown frustrated as Afghan President Hamid Karzai holds off on signing a security agreement that would allow a smaller number of troops from the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance to stay in a support role.
“I think our analysis and Pakistan’s analysis are pretty much the same - that an abrupt termination in the Nato and American presence there would be destabilising, would incentivize Taliban and other militant groups and would demoralize significant elements of the population,” a US official said.
Pakistan also has staunch critics in the US Congress, which recently voted to withhold $33 million in aid until the release of Shakeel Afridi, a doctor imprisoned for helping the CIA track down bin Laden. The Issue is certain to come up at the talks.
In a new study, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations said that Congress should keep the current level of about $400 million in annual defece assistance to Pakistan but link it to improvements in internal security instead of the Afghan war.
Markey called for Pakistan’s integration into the US “rebalance” toward Asia, saying that the Obama administration’s professed new regional focus has led to feelings of abandonment in Islamabad.
Among other ideas, Markey called for the United States to negotiate preferential access for goods from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan - a three-way deal that would help improve Islamabad’s relations with its neighbours.
The Dialogue covers five areas of cooperation and detailed discussions take place at the level of working groups on energy, defense, strategic stability, economic and finance, and law enforcement and counterterrorism.
The official said the two sides are fundamentally focused on the key parts of the bilateral relationship.
“None of those are specifically tied to Afghanistan. Obviously the regional neighborhood has influences on any of those, but in terms of the ongoing economic and energy relationship, the defense relationship, the counter-terrorism relationship, and the strategic stability/nuclear relationship, all of these provide very core key interests in terms of both of our national security interests.”