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Kerry meeting

Updated December 02, 2014

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Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif shaking hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry. —Photo courtesy of Major General Asim Bajwa' Twitter account
Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif shaking hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry. —Photo courtesy of Major General Asim Bajwa' Twitter account

GEN Raheel Sharif’s extended visit to the US may have caught many by surprise here.

In fact, few seemed aware that the army chief was still in the US, especially since the otherwise vocal ISPR went quiet for a full week.

However, his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on a holiday weekend in the US is a notable capstone, suggesting that Pak-US relations are more on track than ever before.

Also read: Meeting COAS, John Kerry terms Pak Army a 'truly binding force': DG ISPR

Yet, with few details other than diplomatese over Twitter on Sunday by Secretary Kerry and DG ISPR Gen Asim Bajwa about the hard issues that were surely discussed, comment may have to be limited for now to two facets: one, the ascendancy of the army leadership once again in matters of foreign policy and national security; and, two, what a closer Pak-US relationship could mean for the region going forward, especially with the new mandate in Afghanistan post-2014.

To begin with, the sight of America’s top diplomat meeting Pakistan’s most powerful military leader has sent a strong signal. From the standpoint of a constitutional democracy and civil-military relations it is a dispiriting one.

Perhaps the vision articulated by Gen Sharif on security policy and how Pakistan should push forward in the fight against militancy is not fundamentally problematic.

Nevertheless, consider the optics. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif caused ripples last week because of his comments on the Pak-US relationship — but those comments were made in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign relations Sartaj Aziz caused a bit of a kerfuffle with poorly chosen words on Pakistan’s stance on militants of all stripes — again, words uttered here in Pakistan.

For all intents and purposes then, the shaping of foreign and national security appears to have been surrendered by the PML-N, to the detriment of the democratic process.

In truth, if the PML-N had the capacity and determination, this was not an inevitable result. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif originally kept the defence and foreign portfolios for himself after winning a third time last year, it seemed there was some purpose and intent behind it.

Unhappily, time was lost, unnecessary choices were made and no vision was forthcoming. Fast forward a year, after other events have combined to constrain the government’s policy space further, and there seem to be parallel tracks once again: the de jure, constitutionally empowered locus of power; and the de facto, based on power relations locus of power.

On the possible Pak-US convergence on how best to help achieve a stable Afghanistan, deal with the insurgency in Fata and help Pakistan maintain political and economic stability while fighting against militancy, the picture is murkier.

Engagement does not automatically amount to a plan or strategy. Both Pakistan and the US need a stable, cooperative relationship that is more than just about security. But is this about managing differences rather than resolving them?

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2014