John Kerry’s first visit to Pakistan as US Secretary of State, and after the establishment of the new government led by PML-N, finally took place last week amidst murky conditions.
On a historical note, relations between the two countries have been strained since the Raymond Davis affair, Abbottabad raid and Salala check post attack. Some of the points of Pak-US dissension have been Washington’s diktat to “do more”, including conduct military operations against the Taliban safe havens in North Waziristan; sanction drone attacks on Pakistani territory; foot-dragging over the coalition support fund and other financial assistance to Islamabad; and, reportedly, the enhanced espionage activities of CIA network in Pakistan.
Besides, the continued incarceration of Dr Aafia Siddiqui in the US has caused ripples among the general public of Pakistan, while Islamabad’s resolve to conduct dialogue with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has raised concern in Washington, along with its pursuit of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.
Also, a controversial presidential election; the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim over a raging controversy; a major jailbreak in Dera Ismail Khan in which 250 prisoners, including 30 hardcore terrorists, escaped; and the absence of a full-time Pakistani Ambassador to USA as well as full-time Minister for Foreign Affairs aggravated Pakistan’s handicap.
Secretary Kerry, who has been a frequent visitor to Pakistan, appeared visibly discomfited; perhaps, the uncertainty of dealing with the new political dispensation in Islamabad was having a telling effect. Yet, he called on the outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari commending him on a smooth political transfer; telephoned the new presidential-elect, Mamnoon Hussain; met for a tête-à-tête with Prime Minister Mian Nawaz and also met his team; and visited the GHQ to have a word with the Army Chief and DG ISI. His meeting with PTI Chairman Imran Khan induced high drama since the latter refused to call on the visitor at the US Embassy necessitating a change in venue to the residence of the Deputy Head of the US mission.
Concluding the high-level talks, Secretary Kerry announced the resumption of Pak-US strategic dialogue; availability of 1,000MW additional power to Pakistan with the assistance of USAID; launch of a new investment fund between the two countries for enhancing the trade between the two countries; US support in the construction of $12 billion Diamir-Bhasha Dam to overcome Pakistan’s worst-ever energy crisis; and assistance in education projects. On behalf of President Barack Obama, it is good that Secretary Kerry extended an invitation to PM Nawaz to visit the USA in autumn for bilateral discussions.
Conversely, the Secretary outright rejected Pakistan’s objections to drone attacks, maintaining that it was President Obama’s stated policy to target America’s enemies wherever they maybe. He refuted that drone strikes were contrary to Pakistan’s sovereignty, but hinted in an interview that they may stop soon; only for the statement to be retracted by the State Department after his departure.
Further, the Pak-Iran gas pipeline issue was pre-empted by Pakistan’s presentation of a ‘non-paper’ highlighting the pursuance of the project to meet the energy shortage. Pakistan did not broach the subject of swapping Dr Aafia Siddiqui for Dr Shakil Afridi, while Kerry’s team hinted at non-mediation on the Kashmir issue.
The visiting Secretary played with semantics that the US forces are being “drawn down” from Afghanistan and not “withdrawn”, as some of the US Special Forces will be retained. Interestingly, President Hamid Karzai is yet to endorse a strategic pact with the US to the effect.
Pakistan’s handicaps enumerated earlier constrained it to optimally utilise the visit, while PM Nawaz’ eagerness in accepting the invitation to visit America depicts naiveté. Pragmatic leaders manoeuvre their response to such invitations, using it to leverage the pursuit of national interests.
Kerry’s snub to Pakistan on the drone issue and denunciation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was, perhaps, undiplomatic and an adequate rejoinder should have been issued by Islamabad. The legality of President Obama’s drone policy can be challenged in international courts.
At the moment, Pakistan’s trump cards are safe passage to US troops from Afghanistan and dialogue with the Taliban, which should be played prudently. Kerry took pains to emphasise that US relations with Pakistan are not transactional. The truth, however, is to the contrary and Pakistan needs to take wise decisions to steer the country out of the present mess. Indeed, enhanced Pak-US relations are essential, but they have to be on an even keel.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.