Previous weeks witnessed some unilateral American actions which poured chilled water on the Pakistan-US relations. Droning of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in an otherwise no go area for drones; scuttling of sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan under Indian pressure; conditioning the inflow of US$ 300 with action against Haqqanis; and audacious effort to make India an NSG member while out rightly blocking Pakistan’s entry had sufficient cumulative impact to make some analysts jump to conclusion that Pakistan-US relationship were in for a replication of 1990s era, when the US had summarily abandoned Pakistan after assuming that the Afghan issue had settled for ever.

Pakistan’s resistance and reaction to these recent American actions to contain Pakistan successfully sent back the message that Pakistan could revert back to alternative options like: abandoning lead role in urging Taliban to negotiate in the absence of guarantees that the US and Afghan governments won’t kill the Taliban leadership unilaterally; buying of F-16s or their substitute from alternative sources; and scuttling of Indian entry into NSG through proactive diplomacy. Pakistan demonstrated that the US was in no position to assume a walkover from Pakistan when it comes to American actions to decisively tilt strategic balance between Pakistan and India in latter’s favour.

Recent delegation level visit of US Senators Lindsey Graham, Benjamin Sasse, Joe Donnelly and John McCain, Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee to Pakistan was a fence-mending effort. Delegation visited Afghanistan as well. Gaps between John McCain’s articulation in Islamabad and Kabul were interesting, highlighting the divergence of interests amongst the odd trio—America, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After “excellent meeting” with Pakistani foreign ministry officials, he told the Afghan Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul on July 04 that he had pushed the Pakistani leaders to take practical steps against Haqqani Network. “The US forces and the country will continue to support the Afghans until the end of war,” senator McCain said. Dr Abdullah told the US senators that the American and Afghan forces were the target of terrorism having “roots abroad” and this problem could be resolved when the roots are ended.

While in Pakistan, Adviser to PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had briefed the US delegation about faltering peace talks to end the civil war in Afghanistan. “No country had as much vital stakes in the success of these joint efforts, as Pakistan”. Adviser recounted Pakistan’s earnest efforts, particularly during the past few months, to keep the Pakistan-US partnership on track. With reference to recent developments concerning the India-US relations, he emphasised the need to maintain strategic balance in South Asia. Delegation was also on briefed the vital issues of: Pak-Afghan border management; repatriation of Afghan refugees; and Afghan peace and reconciliation process. It was reiterated that Pakistan remains committed to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process.

McCain is known for keeping his feet in both boats when it comes to Pakistan-India relations. Earlier in a reaction to the US government’s approval of sale of eight F-16 to Pakistan McCain had urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on February 26, to hold a hearing on this sale. He opined that a hearing would help senators decide what to do about the proposed sale, noting that he was himself very “conflicted.” McCain was concerned about the timing of the Obama administration’s decision to approve the sale and potential consequences for US relations with India! “I would rather have seen it kicked over into the next administration,” McCain said.

The government approval of deal drew immediate criticism from India; and Pentagon aptly responded: “F-16 sale to Pakistan should not be of concern to India”. However, the spoiler action followed soon after. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker allowed the Obama administration to proceed with the deal, but said he would not approve using US funds to pay for the planes through the foreign military financing programme. Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter that he was concerned about Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network. Crocker did it, apparently single handily and the deal was scuttled. He had exploited Pakistan’s economic vulnerability of being unable to pay the full cost. It is hard to digest that one odd cranky senator could halt the mighty wheels of the Pentagon and State Department. There must be more to it.

While in Pakistan, John McCain said that he would like relations between the US and Pakistan to improve as they have a common enemy in the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups. “We come back with a message that we have a common enemy in ISIS, radical Islam and terrorism, and we look forward to closer relations and resolving the differences we have,” McCain said.

The US officials often express anguish on what they perceive Islamabad’s unwillingness to act against Islamist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Pakistan is of the view that it doesn’t harbour militants as state policy and there are limits to what all it could do all alone. Pakistan is already fighting multiple Islamist groups and is wary of “blowback” in the form of more terror attacks on its soil.

Senators visited Pakistan in the backdrop of scepticism in certain US quarters that Islamabad was reluctant to go after all militant groups, particularly the Haqqani network, which is blamed for most deadliest attacks against US forces in Afghanistan. To dispel this impression Pakistan, for the first time, took these visitors to North Waziristan to get a first-hand account of its efforts. “I was very impressed with the progress,” said McCain. “I see us working together in confronting a common challenge and these kinds of meetings are very helpful”, McCain added.

Senator McCain and his colleagues deeply appreciated the enormous success achieved by Pakistan in its counterterrorism campaign which they said was so impressively visible during their trip to North Waziristan. The delegation commended the transparent process of FATA stabilisation carried out by the Pakistan government. Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region has almost been cleared of the Taliban and other militant groups. “Having seen first-hand, the erstwhile hide outs and communication infrastructure, been cleared of terrorists, the delegation was highly appreciative of Pak Army’s accomplishments during Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which has resulted in killing 3500 hard core militants.

The delegation also met with wounded soldiers and officers who were seriously affected in the war against the Taliban and other militant groups and have now voluntarily re-joined the battlefield; visitors appreciated their determination and will to fight. The senators also commended the rehabilitation work being carried out by Pakistan Army to resettle tribesmen back in their area with dignity and honour.

US senators also met Pakistan’s Army chief to “smoothen the frayed relations” between the two countries. “The COAS dilated upon security challenges faced by Pakistan and Pakistan’s contribution in regional stability and global peace,” the ISPR statement said. The army chief said a stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest and relationship between both countries hold key for regional peace and security. Senators welcomed closer coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan on various complex issues.

Senators recognised the need for greater contact between Pakistan and the US and to work together to address the challenges. They stressed that Pakistan-US relations have maintained their strategic dimension over the decades and the relationship would retain its vigour in the years ahead. Common problem with such delegations is that they come with a fixated mind-set, do a good talk, disregard what Pakistani side tells them and go back with the same mind-set they came with. No wonders Pakistan-US relations remain in a perpetual fire fighting mode. One will have to wait and see if McCain and party make a departure from this pattern!