By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal
The two leaders would meet under a strategic environment that embodies both areas of convergence as well as divergences. For example: in the context of Afghanistan, problem would be almost over for America by end 2014; whereas it may just begin for Pakistan. Hence, the two sides are poise to have different, yet reconcilable, perspectives of post 2014 Afghanistan. This summit would be first bilateral interaction between the two countries after about 18 months. In May 2012, Obama had refused to have a bilateral meeting with Zardari at the sidelines of NATO Summit in Chicago. Obama has long ago forgotten about the disputed status of Kashmir, and now he only remembers that Pakistan is epicentre of terrorism. Pak-US relations are like a rollercoaster ride. Usual pattern is marked by brief smooth “Aid On’ spells interspersed with long “Aid Off” estrangement hibernations.
America has once again demonstrated the way it crudely uses economic aid as a political tool. Just prior to Nawaz-Obama summit, the US has released US$1.6 billion miscellaneous aid held up since soaring of relations after Abbottabad and Salalah attacks. America is the single largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in Pakistan; paradoxically, over the previous 4-5 years, often each added dollar to Pakistan’s economy has added to anti America sentiment amongst the Pakistani people. Relationship is not bilateral in the academic sense. Though the Nawaz-Obama summit should logically focus on Pak-US relations, it is poised to concentrate more on Afghanistan.
Prime Minister is visiting America when the US is desperate to ink Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan, and negotiate a possible deal with the Afghan Taliban for a face saving exit, while securing its strategic interests in the region. Pakistan is concerned about the likely fallout of the BSA, especially the clause being insisted upon by the Afghan government side, whereby any cross border attack on Afghanistan by the Taliban originating form within Pakistan could invoke a joint Afghan-US response. Afghan Taliban are concerned about another clause of the BSA which envisions stationing of residual American garrison after 2014. In the context of Afghanistan, the US president has reportedly described Pakistan as the “major wild card”.
Obama bruised by what Putin did to him, in the cases of Edward Snowden and Syrian chemical weapons as well as humbled by what congress inflicted upon him regarding the government shutdown, is unlikely to be in an appropriate frame of mind to receive Nawaz Sharif in the right stride. He is likely to be desperate to extract concessions from Pakistan. For Obama, core interest is to secure Pakistan’s assistance for ensuring a trouble-free withdrawal of occupation forces from Afghanistan, whereas Nawaz Sharif will convey his concerns about post 2014 demobilization of militants and their rehabilitation.
Two sides have enough common ground to achieve both objectives provided American law makers are able to revive a variant of erstwhile “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” (ROZ); however, Obama has lost the political clout to be able to accrue such legislation from the Congress, at least until midterm elections in 2014. Pakistan’s finance minister has recently discussed with the US officials various alternatives to the now shelved ROZ programme, reportedly he found the US officials ‘positive’ in this regard.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will focus on expanding investment and trade cooperation with the United States, and advocate trade as the best way to strengthen bilateral relations. The prime minister will brief President Obama on his roadmap for reviving the economy and dealing with terrorism and share with the American side Pakistan’s perspective on the regional situation. He will also interact with American business leaders and address a Business Council meeting that will be attended by top American entrepreneurs. However, Obama is not likely to be receptive to his requests except to the extent that it forms a part of greater quid pro quo on Afghanistan or for shelving the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline project.
America is likely to shape its future relationship with Pakistan on the basis of latter’s approach towards Afghanistan, India and the region as a whole, and its commitment to fighting Indo-American interpretation of terrorism at home. The relationship will be resourced accordingly. Cross-border terrorism and presence of terrorist sanctuaries in tribal areas is of prime concern to the United States and White House has already indicated to Pakistani officials that President Obama would be taking up the matter during the summit. Cross border attacks on Pakistan from the Afghan side, protection extended by the Afghan government to numerous Pakistani fugitives and the Kashmir issue would be boring rants for Obama.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has already predicted that it will be a tough visit where according to him some “frank discussions about some serious challenges and some serious concerns” will take place. America views, at least some of the policies of Pakistan as a part of the problem; and that in his meeting with Nawaz, Obama would be pressing Pakistan to change those policies in line with the US wishes so as to enlist Pakistan as a “partner”. Pakistan has prepared a set of its concerns, which the prime minister will convey to the US president. Prime Minister will also take up the issue of drone strikes in FATA. Drones have become a focal issue because the TTP has offered ceasefire in return for an end to US drone strikes.
During the preparatory effort for the summit, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar attended more than 50 meetings on the occasion of annual IMF-World Bank gatherings, and also had “positive” discussions with the US officials on bilateral economic relations. Both these institutions wait for an American nod before any meaningful engagement with borrowing countries. Finance minister also held meetings with USAID Administrator and senior US Trade officials.
As a result, an outstanding amount of $ 322 million in Coalition Support Funds have already been reimbursed to Pakistan. America’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation has shown its intent to increase its investment in Pakistan to $1.5 billion. Moreover, the World Bank, has committed $700 million to Dasu hydel power project, and also agreed one billion for International Development Assistance. Finance minister is hopeful that budgetary support from the US assistance is likely to increase from current level of 20 percent to 35 to 40 percent. This would in turn lead towards greater dependence on American dole outs and further limits Pakistan’s leverage over American policies towards Pakistan.
Nawaz Sharif’s two immediate predecessors Zardarai and Musharraf were playing from weaker wickets. Zardari headed a weak coalition, he needed American good will for continuity of his government; Musharraf bowed before America for getting a nod of legitimacy from America and its allies. However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is proceeding for the summit from a position of strength. He did not come to power through American machinations nor is American blessing critical for his continuity in power. At the same time, being a popularly elected leader, he carries a huge baggage of popular expectations. He ought to speak from a position of strength. People back home would expect him to make Pakistan get over the handicap of critical dependence on America. Time has come to distance Pakistan from the American shadow. This could only come through a policy of domestic fiscal discipline and self reliance rather than eyeing for a billion or two of dollars in exchange for vital national interests.
Mr Prime Minister! The forthcoming summit is indeed the toughest diplomatic challenge; its outcome may have more far reaching domestic ramifications than the international implications. While all eyes are set on your performance, we wish you Good Luck!
Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.