How strategic was the Washington dialogue?

Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Aimed at setting a new strategic direction for Pakistan-US relations and overcoming mutual mistrust, the recent talks in Washington were more significant for their atmospherics than any tangible outcome. Dialogue, of course, is a process, not an event. But the expectations raised by both sides about the fourth round had exceeded what was achieved in the two-day talks.
What emerged from the Washington encounter was already committed assistance for some development projects and a pledge to fast-track delivery of military hardware for Pakistan. Important, however, were the assurances conveyed to the Pakistani delegation that America’s long-term strategic interests were consistent with Pakistan’s security, and that these lay east of Afghanistan.

But despite the well-orchestrated pageantry, the strategic dialogue made little, if any, visible progress on the big-ticket issues that topped Pakistan’s priorities: preferential trade, addressing the troubled Pakistan-India equation and securing access to civilian nuclear technology. While the US didn’t want to say no to Pakistan’s requests, it didn’t say yes either.

The high-powered engagement was driven principally by US compulsions to secure Pakistan’s cooperation as the Afghan endgame approaches and for the continuing fight against Al Qaeda. While the effort in the dialogue was to accord primacy to bilateral relations, Afghanistan remained the most pressing concern.

The dialogue nevertheless sought to broaden the relationship beyond a focus on security. But the agenda’s expansion to ten “sectoral tracks” raised doubts about the wisdom of adding to a “strategic” dialogue multiple issues that are already the subject of ongoing discussions. This risks scattering the focus and detracting from pivotal matters.

The anodyne joint statement issued at the end of the talks was more important for what it did not say than for what it did. Absent, despite Islamabad’s efforts, was any reference to US support for the resumption of formal peace talks, or composite dialogue, between Pakistan and India or the need to resolve disputes – Kashmir and water among them.

There was silence on further engagement on civilian nuclear energy. American officials told the Pakistani delegation that this was not the time to press the issue. Pakistan’s minimum expectation to secure in the communiqué some kind of formal recognition of its status as a nuclear-weapons power did not materialise.

As for trade, the vague US assurance to “work towards enhanced market access” fell short of a firm commitment on trade concessions, much less hold out any prospect of a future free-trade agreement. Considering Washington has for years been unable to deliver the modest trade access under the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones initiative, Pakistani expectations of preferential trade access will have to be squared with this reality.

Nevertheless, the Pakistani delegation saw a marked change in the mood in Washington. Even though the foreign minister overstated the point by describing this as a “180-degree turn” the environment for the talks was no doubt very positive. Pakistan’s army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani read this as acknowledgement of the fact that “Pakistan had as a nation stood up to terrorism.”

Certainly Washington made a special effort to roll out its top national security team for the dialogue and shower praise on Pakistan for its anti-militancy efforts. This improvement in tenor helped to restore a semblance of normalcy to a relationship that has recently been under much strain.

A new willingness to listen to Pakistan’s concerns and priorities was evident. These had been earlier conveyed in a 56-page document handed over to US national security adviser Gen James Jones during his February visit to Islamabad. This had, according to American officials, been carefully read in Washington.

The really substantive – and strategic – exchanges took place outside the formal dialogue process in unpublicised meetings. They included a dinner hosted by the chairman of the joint staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and attended by Gen Kayani, as well as the unannounced meeting between the top members of the Pakistani delegation and Vice President Joseph Biden. Pakistan’s economic needs, India and Afghanistan apparently figured in these meetings.

Although the content of these parleys and earlier meetings at the Pentagon and Centcom headquarters have not been revealed, it is believed they focused on an immediate priority: how to manage the Afghan endgame. Views were also reportedly exchanged on how a post-war Afghanistan could be stabilised. The two sides are believed to have attained a better understanding of each other’s perspectives so as to align their policy on the next steps forward.

For President Obama, whose re-election prospects hinge considerably on “success” in Afghanistan, it is critical to secure Pakistan’s cooperation – militarily in implementing his surge strategy, and politically, once the ground shifts to negotiations with the Taliban. The exchanges on the sidelines of the strategic dialogue sought to determine the parameters of such cooperation.

Washington has not yet come around to seek a political settlement in Afghanistan. For now it wants to weaken, not talk to Taliban leaders. Efforts are being ratcheted up for a full-scale military offensive in Kandahar in coming weeks. The US has adopted a public posture of distancing itself from President Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation efforts but has pointedly not signalled disapproval.

In congressional testimony last week Defence Secretary Robert Gates described the present US position in this way: “The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince Taliban leaders they are going to lose…. It’s when they have doubts whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal…. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Washington’s shoot-first-to-talk-later strategy is therefore predicated on the assumption that its military campaign will be able to weaken the Taliban. The specifics of a reconciliation strategy would then be fashioned as the situation changes on the ground.

In the light of this strategy it is unlikely that the Pakistani delegation would have heard any specifics about the timing and modalities of talks with the Afghan insurgents, even though it is apparent that they will eventually be pursued. The discussions left little doubt in the minds of Pakistani officials that Washington was looking for a way to “exit” from the Afghan war.

As for Pakistan’s stance, Gen Kayani reiterated this at various forums: once a political framework for political reconciliation had been fashioned in what must be an Afghan-led initiative, Pakistan was willing to play a role. Without such a framework peace efforts would not succeed. He also reaffirmed Pakistan’s interest in seeing a stable, peaceful and friendly Afghanistan.

While the talks helped both sides better understand each other’s thinking, the delicate dance that lies ahead will pose many challenges. How far the Washington talks have paved the way for closer coordination will only emerge later. Islamabad will certainly expect Washington to deliver on specific assurances given to its delegation about addressing its concerns over India’s military role in Afghanistan.

The future of Pakistan-US relations will hinge as much on how the Afghan endgame is played out as on other strategic issues. On the other security issues, Washington has listened to Pakistan’s case but chosen to be noncommittal, even as it has tried to show more “understanding.” These issues will not disappear just because Washington is unable to help address them: the unstable Pakistan-India relationship, the strategic challenges posed by the destabilising effects of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, the festering Kashmir dispute, and the complexities of the water issue. Public views of the US in Pakistan will also be determined by what didn’t figure in the strategic dialogue: US policies towards the Muslim world.

Pakistan’s decision-makers should draw an important lesson from the talks. Given the limits on Washington’s capacity to address Pakistan’s concerns – just as there are constraints on Pakistan’s ability to support all of America’s geo-strategic interests – Islamabad needs to change its US-centric mindset, learn to mobilise its own resources, rather than look to Washington to solve all its problems and fashion a foreign policy that is in sync with the multipolar world we live in.


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