Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s latest trip to Washington has brought home once again both the areas of convergence and divergence of the strategic interests of the two countries. Nawaz Sharif’s close advisers and spin doctors, in their enthusiasm to eulogize their leader, would have us believe that the visit was a total success from Pakistan’s point of view and that Pakistan-US relations couldn’t be in better shape.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s domestic detractors, driven by the desire to run him down, fail to see anything positive in the outcome of the visit. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in the middle. Let us first try to understand the factors which demand close cooperation between the two countries. These include combat against terrorism from which both Pakistan and the US have suffered, restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan in which both the countries have deep interest, maintenance of peace and stability in South Asia which is also a matter of common concern for both of them, and nuclear safety and security in which the international community as a whole is interested. Pakistan is a de facto nuclear-weapon state of 190 million people located at the crossroads of South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. Its views cannot be ignored in any issue of regional peace and security. Pakistan’s close links with Muslim countries provide it with added strength and importance as a voice of moderation. It is, therefore, in the US interest also to remain engaged with Pakistan. Finally, there is considerable scope for the expanding bilateral cooperation between the two countries in economic, commercial, technical and defense fields.

The potential for mutual cooperation between Islamabad and Washington is, however, circumscribed by the strategic factors pulling them in opposite directions. The foremost among them is America’s policy of containment of China in whom Washington sees a potential rival on the regional scene and in the long run- even at the global level. Besides building up its alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, and rebalancing its forces in favor of the Asia-Pacific region, the US is helping India emerge as a major world power of the 21st century to enable it to counter the expansion of the Chinese influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India, for its own strategic considerations, would be quite happy to play that role. Pakistan because of its strategic partnership and time-tested friendship with China and its size, has neither the desire nor the capability to play such a role. As time passes, the growing warmth and strategic cooperation between the US and India, whom Pakistan views as the main threat to its security, will cause misunderstandings, irritation, and unhappiness between Islamabad and Washington unless these two countries handle their relationship in a mature manner recognizing both its potential and limitations.

Ironically, Afghanistan and the combat against terrorism, which can be areas of cooperation between Pakistan and the US, are also issues, which, if not managed properly by both the countries, can lead to negative results for their relationship. There is little doubt by now that since its invasion in 2001, Washington has mostly followed a deeply flawed Afghan policy setting for itself unrealistic strategic goals in the country, placing emphasis on military means and ignoring a political approach in pursuit of those goals, treating the Taliban for a long time as a terrorist group rather than an extremist conservative group fighting for its political space in Afghanistan’s national politics, and trying to impose its own liberal values on the conservative and tribal Afghan society. In the process, the US alienated a large part of the Afghan population providing the Taliban with the political space to regroup and regain strength in their fight against, as they see, a US-imposed regime in Afghanistan.

Washington and its generals have found it convenient to blame the so-called Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas for their policy failures in Afghanistan instead of recognizing that the root cause of the civil war in Afghanistan lies in its domestic situation . It is only more recently that Washington has woken up to the necessity, in the post-2014 scenario, of a freely-negotiated political settlement between the Kabul government and the Afghan Taliban. Under the circumstances, the best that Pakistan can do is to facilitate an intra-Afghan dialogue with the goal of a political settlement while telling firmly any remnants of the Afghan Taliban on its soil to return to their homeland. The other side of the bargain is that Washington should encourage the Afghan government to resume dialogue with the Afghan Taliban for a political settlement and a power sharing formula, and stop any cross-border terrorism in Pakistan originating from its soil.

Peace and stability in South Asia demand unconditional, sustained and uninterrupted dialogue between Pakistan and India to defuse tensions, adopt CBM’s, strengthen strategic stability and balance in the region, resolve outstanding disputes particularly the Kashmir dispute , and develop mutually beneficial cooperation on a level playing field. Pakistan and the US must remain engaged on these issues, particularly as the US can play an important role in supporting strategic stability in the region and encourage India to resume dialogue with Pakistan. It is, however, unlikely that the US, keeping in view Indian objections, would agree to do anything more than playing the role of a facilitator rather than a mediator as far as the Kashmir dispute is concerned.

Seen against the background of the foregoing, Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington has achieved fairly positive results according to the joint statement issued at its end. On the positive side, both sides supported an Afghan-owned and led peace and reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban and affirmed that regional peace and stability required the prevention of attacks across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They also called for a sustained Pakistan-India dialogue to resolve peacefully all outstanding disputes, including Kashmir, and address mutual concerns of India and Pakistan regarding terrorism. It was also encouraging that both the leaders recognized the importance of maintaining strategic stability in South Asia.

Further, the two sides reaffirmed their policy to combat terrorist groups like ISIS and extremist ideologies that support them. In principle, the commitment given in the joint statement to take action against the Haqqani network and terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba should not pose any problem to Pakistan. The two leaders also reiterated their commitment to democracy as a key pillar of the US-Pakistan partnership and their desire to strengthen bilateral cooperation in various fields. On the negative side, Pakistan was not able to secure Washington’s agreement for the commencement of cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear technology. There was also predictably no indication that the US will reconsider its strategic tilt in favor of India, as shown by President Obama’s two visits to India as against none to Pakistan, for a more even-handed approach towards South Asia.

America remains and will remain the most powerful country in the world for a long-time to come. Although the coming years will witness a fundamental strategic change in Pakistan-US relations compared with those in the Cold War era, it is in Islamabad’s own interest to remain closely engaged with Washington to promote understanding on regional and global issues, and to expand mutual cooperation wherever possible. The goal of this exercise should be to expand the areas of convergence of the national interests of the two countries while narrowing down the areas of divergence.