THE Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue was conceived at a time when bilateral ties were in trouble and the two states were trying to reset their relationship and its tone in order to address regional security issues.

Six years on, including a three-year hiatus between 2010 and 2013, and six meetings later, the strategic dialogue has settled into a pattern. That pattern is of signalling stability in the broader Pakistan-US relationship — including incremental progress on soft-power items and projects — in order to focus on the security aspects of the relationship.

The sixth meeting has continued the pattern. A lengthy joint statement issued in Washington, D.C. covered topics ranging from ‘expanding trade and accelerating economic growth’ to ‘education, science and technology’ and from reaffirming US support for democracy in Pakistan to ‘continued cooperation in energy’.

Several of the items in the dialogue baskets can have significant marginal benefits for Pakistan. US assistance in the electricity sector, for example, can add to the production of more efficient and relatively cheaper power.

Similarly, cooperation in the education sector, particularly if the Pakistani government desires to see 10,000 PhDs trained in the US by 2025, could significantly change the higher education landscape in the country.

Yet, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the strategic dialogue exists in order for the US to signal that it is committed to engaging Pakistan over the medium and long term — a signal that allows work to be done in the core areas of counter-terrorism, nuclear issues and regional peace processes. Indeed, reading the joint statement in reverse chronology gives a better sense of the key issues in the bilateral relationship: regional cooperation; defence and security cooperation; continued cooperation on law enforcement and countering terrorism; and strategic stability.

Perhaps the greatest convergence in the American and Pakistani positions in the security realm is on the Afghanistan issue.

This may be less because Pakistan has convinced the US of the wisdom of its approach to Afghanistan and more because the Obama administration appears to have no real interest in or policy for Afghanistan anymore.

Anything that prevents a meltdown in Afghanistan before the end of the Obama administration next January appears to be the American baseline.

On Pakistan’s internal fight against militancy there seems mostly positive support, though suggestions continue about Pakistan’s need to broaden the fight to include anti-India and anti-Afghanistan militants.

On the nuclear issue, the US is still pushing for change in the Pakistani posture, but perhaps recognises that the India-specificness of Pakistan’s nuclear programme makes changes unlikely and extremely difficult.

Overall, the sixth strategic dialogue confirms a familiar understanding of Pakistan-US ties: neither the US nor Pakistan is truly looking for a strategic partnership, but both sides understand the need to build and sustain a significant, security-centric relationship.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2016

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