WASHINGTON: Pakistan's ambassador-designate Sherry Rehman arrived in the US capital on Saturday to represent her country in an environment that has turned from friendly to hostile in less than a year.On Friday afternoon, the US State Department, which looks after America's relations with other nations, also noted that “Amb Rehman does indeed come at an important time”.
The department's spokesperson Victoria Nuland described US-Pakistan relations as “challenging and difficult” but assured the new envoy that the United States wanted to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan.
“We're looking forward to having her here in the United States,” Ms Nuland said. “We will, obviously, make clear to her that we consider this relationship extremely important,” she said.
“We continue to believe that the United States and Pakistan and citizens throughout the region have an interest in the closer cooperation of our countries, and particularly in defeating the threats that challenge us both, and particularly the threat from terrorism,” Ms Nuland said.
The statement, although brief, highlights the dilemma that the United States faces in defining its relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is seen in the US as a strategically important country, particularly in the war against terror. But at the same time the Americans are reluctant to trust Islamabad.
The Obama administration, however, made a major goodwill gesture by expediting the endorsement process for Ambassador Rehman. Her papers were cleared and sent back to Islamabad in two weeks, although usually this process takes at least a month if not more.
Last week, the US administration informed Pakistan that they can arrange for Ambassador Rehman to present her credentials to President Barack Obama either on Jan 17 or 18.
Accordingly, the State Department arranged a series of meetings for her with senior US officials before she meets the president. This forced Ms Rehman to come two days before her scheduled arrival, cancelling a planned stopover in London.
She will go to the White House on Jan 18 to present her credentials, although sometimes ambassadors have to wait for months for an audience with the president.
But these goodwill gestures do not hide the problems Ambassador Rehman would face while discharging her duties in Washington.
The immediate problem that she is likely to face revolves around her predecessor, former ambassador Husain Haqqani who was forced to return to Islamabad and resign after his alleged involvement in crafting a memo that seeks US support for reining in the Pakistani military.
On Friday, the US State Department took a strong stance on this issue, urging Pakistan to ensure a fair treatment of the former Pakistani envoy and warned that “we're watching”.
The warning, however, is unlikely to scare those pursuing the so-called 'memogate' case and could add to Mr Haqqani's unpopularity at home.
And this could further vitiate an already tense environment that Ambassador Rehman as well. As a PPP leader, she will be expected to side with Mr Haqqani but as an ambassador she will have to maintain a neutral stance.
To succeed where her predecessor failed, Ms Rehman will have to make US officials believe that she enjoys the support of both civilian and military establishments.
Favouring Mr Haqqani, however, can strain her ties with the military, creating the same problems for her that her predecessor faced.
While many in the US administration liked him, they all also knew that Mr Haqqani was not in a position to fulfil the pledges he made on the military's behalf, such as in the war against terrorists.
Ambassador Rehman comes at a time when US-Pakistan relations, which began to deteriorate after the May 2 US raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, are at their lowest.
Mr Haqqani served in good times, when the United States was trying to move from a tactical relationship to a strategic partnership with Pakistan. US-Pakistan summits, conferences and seminars were common.
American officials would bring Pakistani delegations to their chambers of commerce and try to persuade their businessmen to invest in Pakistan.
Strategic dialogue would bring cabinet level officials from both sides to each other's capitals. And in Washington, Pakistani delegates would often be invited to the White House where sometimes even the president would pay a brief visit to the meeting room to greet the Pakistanis.
This allowed Mr Haqqani — and those who served before him — more room to operate. Ms Rehman will not have this luxury.