Is US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue back on track?
Weekly Pulse
12-18 October 2012
For a year and a half, the traditionally chequered relationship between Pakistan and the United States was on a downward swing. The conflict began at the start of last year over the arrest in Lahore of US private contractor Raymond Davis for killing two Pakistani agents, which revealed the depth of trust deficit between the two supposedly premier allies in the war against terrorism. Subsequently, the Bin Laden operation in Abbottabad and other issues of tensions, particularly the closure of NATO supply route through Pakistan, further aggravated the conflicting trend in relations.

In the past few months, however, pragmatic sense seems to have prevailed in both Pakistan and the US. Their political leaders and security officials have made visible moves to combat terrorism through sharing intelligence, even while their preferences for the purpose remain somewhat apart. Reconciling insurgents in Afghanistan is another common goal that has brought them together. More importantly, leaders of the two countries have revived the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, even though not in as comprehensive a format as it was originally shaped during its three successive rounds in 2010.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar agreed last month in New York to pursue a roadmap of strategic cooperation. Under this roadmap, over a dozen working groups, which were constituted in the initial phase of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, will meet until the end of this year to reinvigorate bilateral work in areas such as security, strategic stability and non-proliferation, counter-terrorism and law enforcement, energy and water, economic, finance and trade cooperation, and defence cooperation. The aim is to shore up Pakistan’s national potential with US assistance, especially through civilian sector development.

Pakistan’s decision to resume logistical support for NATO forces in Afghanistan in early August kick-started its latest phase of cooperative ties with the US, for which a Memorandum of Understanding was concluded by the US and Pakistani governments. Thus, the basis of renewed cooperation between the two countries is more transparent now than before—since much of the counter-terrorism ties during the Musharraf regime in particular were based on verbal understandings. The agreement reopening the Southern Ground Lines of Communication for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan committed Pakistan to ensure “security and quick transfer of these supplies and inform the US about their monitoring and exit routes.”

The Obama Administration responded tangibly to Pakistani government’s bold move, since the country’s parliament had earlier pre-conditioned the re-opening of NATO supplies with the termination of US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In August, the State Department waived legal requirements that made the multi-billion dollar aid to Pakistan contingent on its cooperation in counter-terrorism, ending nuclear proliferation and building democratic institutions. Last month, the US Secretary of State formally notified the US Congress of her decision to continue with aid to Pakistan—with the State Department terming the decision as being “consistent with U.S. national security interests.” The 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 require the US government to certify that Pakistan is cooperating with the US in return for aid.

The US had withheld Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to Pakistan in the aftermath of Bin Laden operation—even though, in October 2011, Secretary of State Clinton decided to waive conditions concerning US assistance to Pakistan. As before, this year’s waiver means the US considers Pakistan’s cooperation crucial for amicably ending the Afghan war, despite having serious differences with the country over lingering issues of insurgent safe havens and drone strikes in its tribal areas. Washington also prefers engagement with Pakistan to continuingly influence its counter-terrorism policies, as the cost of recent confrontation was the hardening of Pakistani position and the fostering of its alliance relationships with Russia and China.

Subsequent to the issuing of the said waiver by the Obama Administration, the US Congress released around $ 1.2 billion in CSF for Pakistan to fight terrorism and $280 million for revamping Pakistan’s energy sector. At the same time, US-Pakistan counter-terrorism cooperation has also geared up. Their army and intelligence chiefs agreed in August to undertake joint counter-terrorism operations along the respective insurgency-ridden regions along the Pakistan-Afghan border to target their respective security threats.

After experiencing the bitterest spell in their well over half a century of relationship, America and Pakistan were, in the words of a State Department spokesman, “back in the business of trying to intensify our counter-terrorism cooperation.” The most recent outcome of this effort is the decision at a meeting of the US-Pakistan Law Enforcement and Counter-terrorism Working Group in Washington to take specific steps to counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This was the first meeting of a working group. There will be many more until the end of December under the Washington roadmap, which formally revised the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue.

Perhaps as part of the same process, nearly 50 companies from the United States and Pakistan met in London this week to discuss business opportunities at the US-Pakistan Business Opportunities Conference co-hosted by the US Trade Representative, the Embassy of Pakistan in the US and the Ministry of Commerce in Pakistan. The two-day conference is the first bilateral business initiative between the US and Pakistan under the Pak-US Trade and Investment Agreement, and it may pave the way for the long-desired Bilateral Investment Treaty between the two countries.

The United States is Pakistan’s largest trading partner. Its annual exports of goods to the US are close to $4 billion and imports of goods from the US are around $2 billion. Last year, the US goods trade deficit with Pakistan was $1.8 billion. The deficit in trade and continuing economic recession are the main reasons for US unwilling to grant trade concessions to Pakistan. The European Union faces the same problems, but it has agreed to provide preferential market access to Pakistani exports. Successive Pakistani regimes have sought similar market access in the US, but with no avail. The only difference the Obama Administration seems to have made in this respect is to ensure that US assistance to Pakistan is spent transparently on specific projects such as infrastructure and energy.

However, for Pakistan-US relations to become truly strategic in nature, it is important that a visible transformation in the US approach to Pakistan from aid to trade takes place soon. Trade concessions for Pakistani products in US market and greater US investment in Pakistan’s business sector, along with the undertaking of civilian sector development projects as per the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act will go a long way in realizing this mutually beneficial goal.

Pursuing peace in Afghanistan is another common objective for the global power and its regional ally. A recent report in the US media suggests that Pakistan and the US are planning a joint effort to draw the Taliban toward peace talks in Afghanistan, an initiative that could help reconcile some militants and give Pakistan a say in the political future of its larger neighbor. A joint commission, or “action group” would reportedly help vet candidates for political rehabilitation, with a goal of helping Afghanistan frame a workable peace deal after US and foreign forces leave the country. During the time US-Pakistan relations had soured, the Obama Administration attempted to co-opt the Afghan Taliban leadership, even bypassing the Karzai regime, but without any meaningful outcome.

It goes without saying that Pakistan’s role in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan will be most crucial. Its declared policy of conditioning this role to an Afghan-driven and Afghan-owned peace process reflects a departure from the so-called strategic depth approach of the recent past, which was driven by the country’s India-centric security paradigm. This paradigm has now started to transform conceptually in line with post-9/11 regional realities. Its practical manifestation in future will depend on what cooperative steps Pakistan takes in ties with Afghanistan and the US, and even with India; and whether it receives corresponding responses from the countries concerned.

With the US in particular, Pakistan may continue to experience tensions over conflicting issues such as the drone attacks in tribal areas. Each drone strike there fuels anti-Americanism across the country. Drone attacks must also cause some collateral damage, even if a drone is said to surpass all other aerial arsenals for pinpointed enemy targeting. Pakistan officially condemns the drone attacks, even though reports about the alleged complicity of its civilian regime or security establishment in the affair are abound. Since counter-terrorism itself is mostly a secretive undertaking, the truth of Pakistan’s covert position, as against its overt stance, may continue to be shrouded in mystery. Also, as a recent protest rally by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan suggests, the politicization of the drone issue in Pakistan may overtime erode its legalistic and moralistic value.

Even if drones weren’t there, there would have been other issues souring US-Pakistan relations. The recent violent reaction in Pakistan to a blasphemous video produced in the US is a case in point. This is what the ground reality in that South Asian Muslim state is, and has been all along. There will be many other occasions of violent expression of anti-Americanism by a virulent minority of Pakistani extremists. This means the United States does not have any other option but deal with Pakistan’s complex and hostile landscape.

Likewise, aggravating social, economic, security and political crises also leave Pakistan with little choice but to stabilize itself internally and make its mark regionally with due support from the outside world. The bulk of this support for the country has historically originated from the United States. In retrospect, while Pakistan should diversify its relations with regional powers such as China and Russia, it must continue to engage the US, especially for realizing the crucial objectives of securing greater trade access in the American market and ensuring its due role in the peace process in Afghanistan.

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