Improving US-Pakistan relations have been on display in Washington this week in a high-level strategic dialogue culminating in two mutually beneficial commitments: more American money in exchange for increased Pakistani dedication to fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In talks headed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the US side and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi for the Pakistani delegation, the US agreed to accelerate the disbursement of about $2 billion in military payments to compensate Pakistan for its military operations against extremists in the regions bordering Afghanistan.
In public remarks Wednesday, Minister Qureshi acknowledged he was a “happy man” after hearing reassurances of the US commitment to his country.
He said Pakistan’s resolve to defeat the forces of extremism it faces remains “undiminished” despite the losses its forces have suffered after more than a year of stepped-up military operations. “It is a matter of standing up for your principles and facing the consequences that come in its wake,” he added.
Past relationship was rocky
The US and Pakistan have had high-level discussions before over the course of an often stormy and mistrustful relationship. But the Obama administration wanted the two days of talks – which included congressional receptions and diplomatic soirees – to underscore that a page has been turned.
One of the clearest signs of what Secretary Clinton called a “new day” in US-Pakistan relations was last year’s passage of a $7.5 billion civilian development program to address Pakistan's education, infrastructure, water, energy, and other needs over the next five years. US officials say steps are being taken to accelerate the disbursement of those funds as well.
But US military officials also highlighted what they see as Pakistan’s robust and unprecedented efforts against extremist forces on its own territory.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who also participated in the talks, described as “extraordinary” the steps Pakistan has taken over the past year “in terms of their operations, in terms of understanding that they now face an existential threat.”
The Americans were also pleased that Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who as chief of army staff was unquestionably the most powerful member of the Pakistani delegation, kept a relatively low profile during the strategic dialogue. The Obama administration has been keen to demonstrate that it is working with and nurturing Pakistan’s democratically elected leaders, even though they remain weaker than the military hierarchy.
Still, the smiles dominating both the US and Pakistani delegations could not cover lingering doubts on each side.
Cutting ties with extremist groups
US officials and Pakistan experts say the Pakistani military – and in particular its intelligence arm – has still not cut all ties to extremist groups, including the Afghan Taliban, which it cultivated over decades of regional power-playing.
For their part, the Pakistanis remain skeptical of the long-term American commitment to them and their region, including Afghanistan. As a result, they continue to hedge their bets for the future, South Asian experts say.
One area where the Pakistani delegation failed to receive enthusiastic support was in its request for a civilian nuclear agreement akin to the one the US signed with India under the Bush administration.
US officials note that the India deal took years of negotiations, and that the US still has questions about Pakistan’s role in proliferating nuclear materials to countries like Iran, Libya, and North Korea – allegedly through the efforts of the Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan.
Qureshi said the Pakistanis “hope nondiscriminatory access to vital energy resources will be available to us so that we can pursue our economic and industrial development plans.” Translation: You showered this perk on our rival India, and we deserve the same. Clinton said the US is open to discussing all of Pakistan’s needs but appeared to discourage any expectations on the nuclear front.
Concerns about nuclear proliferation
But critics of such civilian nuclear agreements say they shudder when they hear Clinton discussing even the remote possibility of such an agreement with Pakistan.
“Here we have this request for a nuclear deal coming in the context of this thinking that we have to do all that we can for Pakistan because they’re helping so much in the anti-Taliban fight,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. “We’re really egging them on.”
Mr. Sokolski – who opposed the India nuclear agreement in part because it would lead to other countries pleading “What about me?” – says the Pakistani request comes as no surprise.
“The pressure will be there to balance our relations with India and Pakistan,” he says, “But we shouldn’t think that two wrongs can make a right.”