PM’s visit to US

Published October 20, 2015
Sharif appears an increasingly peripheral figure in shaping key national security and foreign policy issues. —AP/File
Sharif appears an increasingly peripheral figure in shaping key national security and foreign policy issues. —AP/File

PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif’s second visit to the White House to meet US President Barack Obama will occur in markedly different circumstances than the first one two years ago.

Then, the recently elected third-term Pakistani prime minister had talked of his government’s “domestic and foreign policy strategies” — marked externally by a focus on Afghanistan and internally by the emphasis on the so-called four ‘Es’ — economy, energy, education and (combating) extremism.

Since then, the prime minister’s strategies have either failed to materialise or their implementation has stalled. More worryingly, for the civilian dispensation and the democratic project, Mr Sharif has appeared an increasingly peripheral figure in shaping key national security and foreign policy issues.

The prime minister’s only meaningful foreign policy/national security initiative has gone nowhere owing to the hostility of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the objections of hawks in the Pakistani security establishment.

The visit to the US could — sadly, the conditional nature of that ‘could’ must be emphasised — help Mr Sharif re-establish his relevance to foreign policy if a pragmatism and shrewdness hitherto not on display by civilians is demonstrated.

The increasingly narrow security-based relationship between the US and Pakistan may be a product of the Obama administration’s greatly diminished interest in the Af-Pak region now that a vast majority of US troops have left Afghanistan, but there remain several non-military, civilian-led areas in which cooperation between the US and Pakistan can be improved.

The energy crisis remains a massive challenge, but the Pakistani government appears not to have prioritised technical assistance and investment from the US in the electricity sector. Surely, given that the US has long been one of Pakistan’s top trading partners, there is scope for both commercial and government-to-government cooperation.

In addition, with exports struggling and the once-talked-of increased Pakistani access to US markets seemingly having fallen off the agenda, now may be the time to revive serious negotiations on that front. On the security front, too, there is much that can be discussed by the civilian government: building the counterterrorism capabilities of the provinces in urban Pakistan will surely be attractive to the US.

Does, however, the Sharif government have any interest in going beyond the reiteration of banal statements and acting as a mere conduit on issues now firmly under the military leadership’s control?

The run-up to this week’s prime ministerial trip has so far only offered evidence to the contrary. A huddle of senior ministers virtually on the eve of the trip suggests a desultory, ad hoc approach.

Usually, the agenda for a head of state/leader of government meeting is shaped months in advance and finalised many weeks ahead. If there are any meaningful discussions, they may well be on Afghanistan and nuclear matters it appears. But are the DG ISI’s weekend trip and the rumoured upcoming visit of the COAS to the US more relevant in that regard?

Published in Dawn, October 20th , 2015

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