A Botched up Summit!                                  

By Air Commodore Khalib Iqbal

Mere fact that Nawaz-Obama talks took place cannot be construed as a sign of progress, especially in the context of a prolonged sour relationship between the two countries. Nawaz-Obama summit has, yet once again, brought forth the reality that both sides lack clarity about keeping the bilateral relationship on a sustainably stable trajectory. Apart from some trivial gains there has been nothing matching the stature of the summit. Pakistani side failed to gauge the backdrop against which the Pak-US bilateral relationship is playing out at this point and time and the kind of regional dynamics which are impacting this relationship.

Instead of focusing on core bilateral issues, the summit ended up discussing everything under the sun, indeed pondering over a “laundry list”; hence event lost the focus and achieved nothing concrete. Cameron Munter, the US ambassador to Pakistan until last year, said that both sides wanted a more stable relationship that did not just revolve around crises (management). Sharif has projected himself as “modern and moderate” and has been upfront about his challenges, Munter said. “He’s tried to say we can put this back on a good footing (and) trying to keep expectations fairly low.” At a joint media talk with President Obama after they ended the talks, Prime Minister Sharif said they had proceeded along positive lines and tensions had been cleared. This, of course, is good news and hopefully the gains would translate into a lasting cooperation. But reading a little more carefully between the lines, it is also obvious there were disagreements, indeed serious ones, for which there is no likelihood of an early patch-up.

While analysts wonder about the objectives and the timings of the summit, there is unanimity of opinion about the professional incompetence of the planners of the summit. By extending the prime ministerial outreach to official and technical level huddles, summit got degenerated into a working level marathon. Pakistan’s summit managers failed to discern American vulnerabilities and look for a quid pro quo. Unless there were some undeclared understandings between Nawaz and Obama, during the summit, there is hardly anything to write back home. Stratfor a global analysis agency has also declared the trip a ‘failure’.

It is high time that foreign office takes the centre stage in formulating the foreign policy and associated strategy to implement it. Given the confusion and suspicion that dominates the national discourse about Pakistan’s relations with the outside world, particularly the US, the foreign office must be given a free hand to envision the way it would place Pakistan amongst the comity of nations over short, medium and long term timeframes. Unless there is clarity of road map in the long term context, leadership and public would remain confused and the policy would continue to waver. Gap between policy constraints and public expectations would also continue to expand; and it is already touching the boundaries of unmanageability. 

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After going through the fine prints of the official statements of both sides as well as non-partisan analysis, one wonders if Pakistani view point on any worthwhile subject could find a supporting mention; or if any immediate substantial relief has been provided in distress areas like drone attacks and economic squeeze which has now begun to strangulate the well being of the people.

While the summit was in progress, the UN raising day and the Black day for Kashmir were just around the corner. Indian cease fire violations of the line of control during this year alone had exceeded 345. Kashmir is the world’s most militarises zone, numerous Human Rights entities have pointed stern fingers towards gross HR violations in the IHK, yet Obama chose not to speak specifically on the urgency of implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir. However, he wanted an end to tension between India and Pakistan because: “Billions of dollars have been spent on an arms race in response to these tensions…Those resources could be much more properly invested in education, social welfare programs on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan.”

President Obama welcomed the recent engagements between Nawaz and Manmohan Singh. During which Manmohan had, ironically, almost denied the existence of Kashmir issue. Ahead of his trip to the US, Sharif had said that he planned to ask Obama for American intervention in resolving the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid had immediately rejected the idea of US involvement, saying Kashmir was a ”bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.”

Kashmir conflict was a central topic of the talks; but Obama parried the responsibility. However, he wanted an end to tension between India and Pakistan because: “Billions of dollars have been spent on an arms race in response to these tensions…Those resources could be much more properly invested in education, social welfare programs on both sides.” Obama said. Probably, Obama did not take input form his military industrial complex which is the main beneficiary of Indian spending on arms. Moreover, in all likelihood, Obama’s first campaign days’ memory has chipped off and alongside the Middle East, Global Zero and many other noble causes, he now does not remember that he once resolved to help settle the Kashmir dispute.  Sharif on his part reiterated that he was committed to cooperation with India, including on Kashmir.

Speaking alongside Obama at the White House, Sharif said he raised the issue of American drone strikes during their two-hour meeting, “emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.” However, Obama made no mention of drones, which have triggered widespread resentment in Pakistani public. Even Amnesty International’s “fresh from the oven” report that drone attacks violate international law by killing civilians that may be tantamount to war crimes, did not soften Obama’s view. “Secrecy surrounding the drones programme gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law. It’s time for the USA to come clean about the drones programme and hold those responsible for these hpw violations to account,” said Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher. “What hope for redress can there be for victims of drone attacks and their families when the USA won’t even acknowledge its responsibility for particular strikes?”

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America denies suggestions by Amnesty International that drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere infringed international law, and said it did all it could to avoid civilian casualties. American promise to increase transparency around drone strikes, in May 2013, has yet to become a reality. While mention of the drone issue was conspicuously missing in the joint statement, Obama has privately assured that the controversial programme will end as soon as CIA eliminates remaining high-value targets from the region. To top it off, The Washington Post got hold of documents showing that the US had been briefing Pakistan on the targets and casualties of drone attacks from 2007 till 2011 and, on one occasion, had even carried out a strike on a target selected by the government!

With Pakistan’s nuclear safety being called in to question in recent times, Obama reiterated his confidence in Pakistan’s commitment and dedication to nuclear security and recognised that Pakistan is fully engaged with the international community on nuclear safety and security issues. Both leaders emphasised that nuclear terrorism is one of the most challenging threats to international security. Obama appreciated Pakistan’s constructive engagement with the Nuclear Security Summit process and its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international forums, while acknowledging Pakistan’s efforts to improve its strategic trade controls and enhance its engagement with multilateral export regimes.

One of the outcomes of the meeting was the revival of strategic dialogue, the two countries have decided on the strategic priorities for the five working groups including: Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism; Economics and Finance; Energy Security; Strategic Stability and Non-Proliferation;  and the Defence Consultative Group.

Prime Minister Sharif highlighted his government’s efforts for economic growth, energy security, social development, and good governance.  He thanked Obama for the important contribution the United States has made in supporting Pakistan’s development efforts, including through the “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009”.  He gave the assurance that the United States would strongly support efforts to enlarge and strengthen Pakistan’s economy, particularly in the energy sector, as this sector could play a critical role in ensuring the well-being and prosperity of the people of Pakistan. He reiterated the US support for ongoing programs to strengthen Pakistan’s economy and increased agricultural productivity. Noting that resolving Pakistan’s energy crisis is a top priority for his government, Prime Minister Sharif expressed his commitment to expand power generation capacity, promote the efficient use of energy resources, and better utilize Pakistan’s domestic natural gas, hydroelectric, and renewable resources. Summit emphasized that both sides should work together on a range of options to enable Pakistan to overcome its energy deficiencies and that both sides will hold further discussions in the working groups on Energy and Security, Strategic Stability, and Non-Proliferation.

Obama acknowledged that there will always be some tension between the US and Pakistan, but “We committed to working together and making sure that rather than this being a source of tension between our two  countries, it can be a source of strength.” While calling for a fresh partnership with the United States on the eve of his meeting with Obama, Nawaz Sharif said “It is my endeavour to approach this important relationship with an open and fresh mind, leaving behind the baggage of trust deficit and mutual suspicions.” Speaking at the US Institute of Peace, Sharif reiterated, “The greatest challenge to Pakistan comes from terrorism and extremism, a major victim” of a decade of attacks that have killed more than 40,000 people.

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Two sides agreed on the need for a stable and secure Afghanistan. Sharif said he has assured Afghan President Karzai “that we wish neither to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, nor do we have any favourites.” Sharif said that Pakistan supported a “peaceful, stable and unified Afghanistan”. With a military and political transition in Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan is the one that stands to be affected the most. The premier also underlined that the support of the international community in the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and that their reintegration in Afghanistan was of critical importance to Pakistan.

White House pressed Pakistan to release Dr Shakil Afridi, “Afridi did a good job and he should not have been “treated like that”. One wishes that Americans could feel the pain of the scores of children who have suffered from Polio as parents have lost faith in anti-Polio campaigns since Dr Afridi’s anti-Human and criminal services to the CIA. In his eagerness to please India, Obama also brought up uncalled for issues relating to Jamat-ud-Dawa, and trial of alleged involved persons in Mumbai attacks. When, Nawaz Sharif raised issues pertaining to release of Dr Aafia, and highlighted the Kashmir issue, there was hardly any response.

Foreign office should have briefed the Prime Minister about the American centre of gravity. Heaps of military hardware (worth US$ 80 billion) is awaiting retrieval from Afghanistan, this activity is time bound, and passage can only be through Pakistan. Salang pass in Afghanistan lacks the capacity to handle the traffic, because of which Americans have already destroyed military equipment worth US$ 8 billion. We should have done our homework and asked for infrastructure and security related service charges for retrieval of war material. Moreover, proposal should have been floated for buying some of the relevant equipment on depreciated price.

Nawaz Sharif was quite articulate in putting across the national point of view on almost every issue, but proverbially he was banging his head against the wall. Obama had chosen to be India’s advocate rather than playing his legitimate role as President of America.

To make such evaluation is not to denigrate Nawaz Sharif, he is certainly a visionary leader of great stature; full credit goes to him for forcefully articulating the national point of view. Nor is the purpose of this piece to downplay Pakistan’s tremendous potential as a state and as a nation. It is just to air the anguish about what we ought to be and what we have made out of our selves. Summit was ill-timed, casually planned and clumsily executed. We have indeed missed an opportunity as we did immediately after 9/11. Certainly after this photo session activity, Pakistan has once again emerged as a poor bargainer.