Week long ministerial level meeting of Pakistan-US strategic dialogue concluded on a positive note. The event has resumed after a lull of three years marked by irritants and breakdowns. Credit for re-railing the dialogue goes to both sides. Pak-US bilateral relationship is a complex relationship because American clout extends beyond bilateral horizons. America is able to influence, both positively and negatively, its western allies and the international donor/lending agencies. Statements by the two sides have radiated an optimistic outlook. Resumption of dialogue symbolizes inherent resilience and significance of the relationship and commitment of both sides to not to let transient issues overshadow the relevance and utility of relationship. During the session, two sides worked to put together a blueprint of where they could take this relationship over the next six months to a year—indeed a short term enterprise.

During this period Pakistan has two vital interests: to safeguard against the negative fallout of post 2014 Afghanistan and speedy economic revival of Pakistan. And America has a significant leverage to influence both these interests. American vital interest during this time bracket is a safe exit from Afghanistan while putting up a victorious face. And Pakistan has crucial leverage over such happening. So another marriage of convenience is in the offing; though with a limited shelf life.

This relationship has repeatedly been elevating to highs and lows like a roller coaster. Regardless of high sounding adjectives, there is little difference in how each side views other’s policies. Majority of Pakistanis view the relationship as transactional; likewise, prominent legislators in the US Congress have frequently made it clear that they view the relationship as transactional. Recent example of deducting US$ 33 million for Pakistan’s aid to match each year of imprisonment awarded to Dr Shakil Afridi is a case in point. It would have been in the fitness of things if the deducted amount was used to set up a fund to combat Polio in Pakistan.

The US conducts strategic dialogue with only three countries in the world: China, India and Pakistan. It does not necessarily speak of the depth of American relationship with these three. It enjoys much deeper relations with its traditional European and other allies without coining the term strategic. Indeed the term strategic is used to cover the inherent voids and fault lines of the American relations with these three Asian countries.

President Obama’s State of the Union address indicated that he has begun to understand the extent and limitations of the American power. He has abandoned or at least mellowed down on most of his earlier ambitions like peaceful Middle East, global zero, nuclear proliferation, pliant 2014 Afghanistan etc. Obama pledged to keep a “small” force of US troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year if the Afghan government wanted it, promised to veto any new sanctions on Iran from Congress while international negotiations are under way on its nuclear programme, and repeated his intent to close the notorious Guantánamo Bay jail. But he neither spoke on how to resolve the Palestinian and Kashmir issues, nor did he own deteriorating conditions in Libya, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan etc.

In this backdrop, while the US and Pakistan have renewed their strategic dialogue, Pakistani leadership should be aware that the US leadership views Pakistan through the lens of security concerns—mainly Afghanistan, terrorism and non-proliferation. Notwithstanding this, the current opening does offer Pakistan a short term window of opportunity, Pakistan should avail this without romanticising the idea of long term partnership or evolution of a strategic relationship.

The strategic dialogue offers an opportunity for Pakistan to put forth a positive agenda of its own. There are some sobering realities, the US remains the largest economy in the world and is Pakistan’s largest export destination after the European Union. The US is also, by far, the single largest source of foreign direct investment in Pakistan. Deepening of economic ties with the US is very much in Pakistan’s interest, and the just concluded strategic dialogue has contributed toward that end.

Congress is currently debating whether or not to vest in the US president ‘fast track’ authority for a limited time to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries, therefore, foremost on Pakistan government’s agenda should be a free trade agreement with the US; it should have a treaty ready by the time Obama gets such authority. A free trade agreement with the US would be a triggering instrument for the Pakistani economy. This alongside GSP Plus status by the EU would make Pakistan a focus country for investment.

The joint statement has reaffirmed the mutual commitment to expanding bilateral trade and business links and welcomed the upcoming United States-Pakistan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council meeting in March 2014 in Washington. The Secretary of State also underscored the US commitment to supporting private sector led growth in Pakistan and welcomed the proposal by Sartaj Aziz to regularly convene a Joint Business and Investment Forum, involving the private sector. American assistance in the energy sector has already helped addition of over 1,000 megawatts of power to Pakistan’s national grid. In addition, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation of the US government is working on financing up to 300 MW of wind power generation projects. In the context of regional energy connectivity and up-gradation of Pakistan’s transmission infrastructure, the US has made a commitment of $15 million in support of the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission project (CASA-1000). Pakistan did well in focusing on economy. Terrorism cannot be defeated as long as the economy does not improve.

The delegates also focused on security, strategic stability, and Pakistan’s intensified efforts to combat terrorism. American side expressed appreciation for the sacrifices of Pakistan’s military personnel and civilians in the fight against terrorism and continued contribution to regional maritime security. The most striking aspect is that Secretary of State tried to assuage fears of Pakistan that the ultimate objective of his country was to seize Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Two sides stressed that a peaceful, stable, independent, and united Afghanistan is in the interest of the region, and affirmed the important role of countries in the region in supporting Afghanistan’s progress toward stability and prosperity. Both sides emphasized their support for a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan, and reaffirmed that Afghan-led peace and reconciliation is the surest way to end violence and ensure lasting stability of Afghanistan and the region.

Though the strategic dialogue itself is moving at snail’s pace and the type and nature of relationship that people of Pakistan desire with the United States is not yet visible but commitment of both sides to further advance their partnership beyond the US pullout from Afghanistan augurs well not only for them but also for this volatile region. Mere ranting of term “strategic” does not really transform a normal or “transactional” relationship into a strategic partnership. The most important pre-requisite for strategic partnership, is mutual trust at all levels and among all key institutions. While speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Sartaj Aziz said, “Pak-US relationship is on an upward trajectory, with bilateral cooperation in wide-ranging economic and security areas moving well”. The success or otherwise of the strategic dialogue can only be judged in hindsight. Only if this initial meeting leads to further, more productive, interactions between the two countries will it be seen as worthwhile. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best!

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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