COMMENTARY
 
Strategic Dialogue: The Third Round
Weekly Pulse
Oct 29-Nov 4, 2010
October 2010 began with a serious rift in US-Pakistan relations following the killing of three Pakistani soldiers in a NATO assault on tribal areas and the subsequent closure of NATO’s key supply route by Islamabad, but it has ended on a promising note: On October 20-22, the two countries successfully completed the third round of their Strategic Dialogue in Washington, DC. Apart from streamlining the progress in 13 crucial civilian and security sectors in which the Obama Administration intends to build and expand Pakistan’s capacity with multi-billion dollar assistance, the Dialogue helped address Pakistan’s core security concern vis-à-vis the threat from domestic terrorism—with the Obama Administration agreeing to offer $2.29 billion as security assistance to the country.

This is an important development, since the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act’s security assistance specific conditionalities had created a situation whereby Pakistan’s security establishment, the traditional beneficiary of US assistance, felt that Washington was deliberately trying to cultivate the country’s civilian government. Given the historically precarious nature of civil-military ties in Pakistan, such perceived US move could have had destabilizing consequences for the just revived democratic order of the country.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who co-chaired the Strategic Dialogue with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has claimed that the new US offer of security assistance to Pakistan was proof of his government’s success in making the Obama Administration accept Pakistani position. The truth, however, is that the United States has itself realized that any move to disrupt the precarious balance in Pakistan’s civil-military ties will be disastrous for the international campaign against terrorism in the region, for which the cooperation of Pakistani security forces is extremely significant.

The severe criticism that security-assistance specific conditionalities of the Kerry-Lugar Bill received in Pakistan following its passage in the US Senate in September last year might have been an important factor that convinced the Obama Administration to initiate a Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan at the ministerial level, with top military and security officials of the two countries participating in it as well. Given that, in the three rounds of this dialogue in March (Washington) and July (Islamabad) and now in Washington, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s participation has been quite important.

During the course of the Strategic Dialogue, the United States has been consistently conscious of the security needs of Pakistani army, which is fighting against terrorism on the one front, while continuing to grapple with the security threat from India on the other. Building Pakistan’s capability to fight extremists is being identified as an important American counter-terrorism objective in the region, for which the US Department of Defense has already allocated roughly $400 million to train and equip the Frontier Corps. Moreover, under a proposed Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, the United States plans to allocate $3 billion over the next five years to train and equip Pakistan’s army and paramilitary forces for a counterinsurgency mission.

In fact, in March this year when the first round of Strategic Dialogue concluded in Washington, the United States delivered 14 AH-1 Cobra gunship helicopters to Pakistan. Washington has also offered to supply Pakistan with an additional 14 F-16 C/D Block 52 fighter jets in addition to the 18 previous Block 52 aircraft whose delivery was to begin in June and completed by December this year.

It was during the debut round that a Policy Steering Group to intensify and expand bilateral strategic cooperation was created. Moreover, 13 sectoral Working Groups were established to deal with several areas of civilian and security cooperation, including economy and trade; energy; defense; security, strategic stability and non-proliferation; law enforcement and counter-terrorism; science and technology; education; agriculture; water; health; and communications and public diplomacy.

During the second round of this dialogue held in June and July, the Working Groups were able to set achievable benchmarks and made appreciable progress in each of the 13 areas of civilian cooperation between the two countries. For instance, the working group dealing with the issue of water management was able to develop a list of mutually agreed upon priorities to tackle the significant water-scarcity threat Pakistan faces. The working group concerned with the energy sector considered short- and medium-term solutions to remaining energy shortages, as well as long-term measures such as increasing private-sector investment in energy in the country.

The third round has mainly reviewed the progress made in this regard. The outcome of intensive deliberations by top US and Pakistani civilian and security officials in the last three rounds of the Strategic Dialogue has been largely positive, as the two countries are now moving from generalities to specifics, or, more precisely, from rhetorical expressions of strategic partnership in recent months to actually implement the various projects of extreme socio-economic significance for Pakistan in the immediate future.

Among others, the projects cover major sectors such as energy, agriculture, education and the exploration of natural resources in the country. A significant chunk of the US $ 1.5 billion a year assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act is meant for developing these sectors, including the building of roads and bridges, including those destroyed by recent floods. One example of the specificity in utilizing US civilian assistance pertains to improving the country’s water management system.

This includes the financing of a multi-year Signature Water Programme to improve Pakistan’s ability to increase efficient management and use of its scarce water resources and improve water distribution. The first phase of the programme would cover seven projects costing over $270 million. In the energy sector, the US would help Pakistan construct Gomal Zam Dam. It alone will store water to irrigate 190,000 acres in South Waziristan, Tank, and Dera Ismail Khan to control flooding—preventing an estimated $2.6 million annually in damages, and enhance agricultural opportunities for approximately 30,000 farming families.

All of these projects-specific US pledges to Pakistan are important, as they break the recent past tradition of leaders of the two countries only talking about undertaking such projects to win the “hearts and minds” of the people affected by terrorism, while doing nothing on the ground to snatch the initiative from the terrorists. Since extremism thrives on real and perceived grievances of the people, it is important for various projects of public welfare to be visible on the ground. The real importance of the ongoing Strategic Dialogue between Pakistan and the United States lies in the fact its ultimate goal is to realize such concrete expressions of cooperation between the two countries. That is the only way to overcome the “trust deficit” between them, especially aat the public level.

Likewise, American and Pakistani civilian and security chiefs participating in the Dialogue would have to seriously address the divergent strategic perceptions, imperatives, and compulsions that off and on mar the progress in the two countries’ bilateral relationship. The Obama Administration seems to have recognized the fact that Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns and interests in the region and that addressing them will be crucial for resolving the Afghan conflict in particular.

For its part, Pakistan has also taken a number of steps that aim to meet US counter-terrorism expectations from it, especially by acting forcefully against terrorist groups in the tribal areas in the last two years. The uncertainty associated with the US-led war in Afghanistan, including the possibility of a political compromise facilitating the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, enhances Pakistan’s role as a frontline state against terrorism in the region. The continuing progress in Pak-US Strategic Dialogue will guarantee Pakistan’s pivotal position in winning the Afghan war militarily or resolving the Afghan conflict through diplomacy.

However, the smooth evolution in strategic partnership between the two countries necessitates that whenever the intricate ground realities of the terrorism-ridden region produces any irritant or conflict of interest emerges in their relations, their civilian and security leaders should be quick to resolve it—as happened in the aftermath of the recent NATO incursion in tribal areas. Al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies pose a common threat to Pakistan, US and the rest of the international community, and this threat can only be jointly tackled.

As for issues other than terrorism that are of concern to Pakistan, the United States must come to Pakistan’s help to resolve them—as they are also indirectly associated with progress in the counter-terrorism domain. Energy-starved Pakistan’s grievance regarding US preferential treatment to India in civilian nuclear energy arena is quite legitimate. Kashmir is boiling again, and President Obama has failed to fulfill the pledge he had made during his election campaign regarding the US role in resolving the dispute. This again is a legitimate Pakistani expectation from Washington, which remains unfulfilled. Enhanced market access or export quota for Pakistani goods in the US market is the third long-standing demand from Pakistanis which the Obama Administration continues to ignore.

Obviously, there are things that the United States expects Pakistan to do, most important of which is the expansion of its security forces’ counter-insurgency campaign in tribal areas to North Waziristan. However, it should be understandable that it is Pakistan which has the right to finally determine its own counter-terrorism priorities, even if the eventual goal of its campaign against terrorism is the same as the rest of the world. Counter-insurgency efforts elsewhere in the tribal region, the continuing security threat from India and the army’s extensive engagement in rescue and relief effort during the recent flooding may have delayed the launching of the North Waziristan operation.

However, if and when the time comes, there is no reason why Pakistan should not go after the terrorist hideouts in this region. Terrorism emanating from there continues to kill innocent people, damage the national economy and the country’s international repute. Pursuing the military leg of counter-insurgency in this last remaining hub of terrorism in tribal areas is an option that needs to be forcefully exercised whenever a decision is made to do so. We have already seen marvelous progress on this front in Swat and South Waziristan. Simultaneously, however, if there is a behind-the-scene move to politically resolve the Afghan conflict through covert diplomacy with Afghan insurgents based in the Pak-Afghan border region, then there is need to publicly pronounce that such a process is indeed under way. Such are a host of issues that must be debated openly within the framework of the Strategic Dialogue between the United States and Pakistan, especially if the two sides aim to make it transparent and remove prevailing suspicion and mistrust between their two peoples.