John Kerry’s first visit to Pakistan as US Secretary of State and after the inauguration of the new government here, finally took place last week amidst murky conditions. Relations between Pakistan and the US have been strained since the Raymond Davis affair, Abbottabad attack and the Salala Check Post issue. The points of Pak-US dissension have been the US diktat of “do more”, including conducting military operations against Taliban safe havens in North Waziristan; the US drone attacks in Pakistani territory; US foot-dragging over the Coalition Support Fund and other financial assistance to Pakistan and the enhanced espionage activities of CIA network in Pakistan. The continued incarceration of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui has caused ripples in the general public and Pakistan Government’s resolve to conduct dialogue with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has raised concern in the US camp along with Pakistan’s pursuit of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.
The timing of the visit was awkward for Pakistan, since Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, who was scheduled to depart for Umrah, delayed his departure due to Kerry’s tardy arrival. A controversial presidential election, the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan over the 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.
John 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. He did call on the outgoing President Zardari, commending him on a smooth political transfer, had a telephonic conversation with the new incumbent, met for a tête-à-tête with Mian Nawaz Sharif and his team, visited the GHQ to have a word with the Army Chief and DG ISI. His meeting with the 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, Kerry announced the resumption of Pak-US Strategic Dialogue; Availability of 1,000MW additional power to Pakistan with the assistance of the 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 the $12 billion Diamir Bhasha Dam to overcome Pakistan’s worst ever energy crisis and assistance in education projects. On behalf of the US President, Kerry extended an invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit the United States in autumn for bilateral discussions.
Conversely, Kerry outright rejected Pakistan’s objections to drone attacks stating that it was Obama’s stated policy to target enemies of the US wherever they maybe. He refuted that drone attacks were contrary to Pakistan’s sovereignty but hinted in an interview the drone attacks may stop soon; only for the statement to be retracted by the US State Department after his departure.
The Pak-Iran gas pipeline issue was preempted by Pakistan’s presentation of a ‘non-paper’ highlighting the pursuance of the project to meet the energy shortage of the nation. 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 US Secretary of State played with semantics that the US forces are being “drawn down” from Afghanistan and not “withdrawn” since some US special forces will be retained. Interestingly, Karzai is yet to endorse a strategic pact with the US to the effect.
Pakistan’s handicaps enumerated earlier constrained it to optimally utilize the visit while Nawaz Sharif’s eagerness in accepting the invitation to visit US depicts naiveté. Pragmatic leaders maneuver 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 undiplomatic and an adequate rejoinder should have been issued by Islamabad. The legality of President Obama’s Drone attack policy can be challenged in international courts.
Pakistan’s trump cards at the moment are safe passage to US troops’ drawdown/ withdrawal and dialogue with Taliban which should be played prudently. Kerry took pains to emphasize that US relations with Pakistan are not transactional. The truth is to the contrary and Pakistan needs to take wise decisions to steer the country out of the present dire straits. Enhanced Pak-US relations are essential but they have to be on an even keel