Kerry’s Visit Was a Productive One
By Salahuddin Haider
Unlike Hillary Clinton’s maiden visit to Pakistan as Secretary of State soon after the revival of the democratically elected government in 2008, John Kerry’s two-day sojourn to Islamabad last week was without much fanfare - more of a formal, routine visit - but viewed from the substantive nature of the discussions it was indisputably a productive one.
Expectations could have been high, especially when viewed in the
backdrop of demands in electioneering from Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif against drone attacks in Pakistan. But when it comes to brass tacks, optics invariably take a realistic turn. That exactly happened in
Kerry’s talks with Sartaj Aziz and the Prime Minister, both in one-on-one meetings and full dress negotiations. Laced with facts and statistics, Pakistan presented its viewpoint forcefully. The Secretary of State too, though cautious, preferred guarded words to explain his country’s policy on the issues. His restraint was understandable and diction commendable.
Kerry or Clinton, or for that matter, any visiting dignitary, would like to end his or her visit on a goodwill note. There is no point in vitiating the atmosphere. That would be a death blow for any meaningful dialogue. Policy perceptions have to be stressed with due propriety, which both sides did splendidly, to buoy hopes for the future.
The most positive outcome of the talks was the unreserved acceptance of the need to resume - within six months - the strategic dialogue, suspended since November 2011. It marked a major breakthrough. What is more, America reiterated its keenness to remain Pakistan’s partner in progress. US assistance has been forthcoming in vital sectors like energy, education, health, and in improving the existing infra-structure to support well-meaning projects. Bhasha or the Gomal Zam Dam projects, capable of boosting irrigation and power production, social sector developments like building new schools and hospitals, especially for the poor and underprivileged segments of the population, testify to US willingness to be a partner in Pakistan’s economic progress. An elevated target of $ 11 billion for bilateral trade was set, which again, was a solid evidence of the desire of both the countries to build relations on a sounder footing.
Ties between Islamabad and Washington, allies since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, remain firm, despite differences, sanctions etc. Understandably, in the rapidly changing global scene each country has to review its policy from time to time to safeguard its vital national interests. There is hardly need for either country to be overly sensitive. This realism ought to be duly acknowledged and given practical shape. If Pakistan has sought Chinese assistance for its mega projects like Gwadar Port, building of strategic highways from Kashgar to Gwadar, modernizing our cities with the latest means of communication like underground railways and motorways, it has only chalked out its developmental priorities on merit.
Likewise, laying down of Pak-Iran gas pipeline to feed our energy-hungry industrial sector, should not raise eyebrows. Pakistan is within its sovereign rights to benefit from resources in its neighborhood. Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is likely to visit Iran for finalizing details of prices, logistics, etc. Iran has already committed 5 million US dollars to construct the pipeline on the Pakistan side. The fact that Islamabad submitted a non-paper on the subject to Secretary Kerry showed the former’s determination to pursue an independent line, and do what is best for itself.
The drones continue to be a stumbling block, but do not, in any way,
affect, much less damage, the vast canvass of relationship. Such differences are normal in any bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is confident of resolving the issues to the satisfaction of both sides. President Obama wishes to continue these pilotless planes as a weapon of considerable effectiveness in combating terrorism. But figures present a different perspective. True, some of the key leaders of Al-Qaeda, terrorism godfathers spitting fire and destruction world over, were eliminated by these attacks, but the drones have also brought death and destruction to thousands of innocent people in mountainous northern Pakistan. In this context, what was disturbing was a somewhat hurried rebuttal from the State Department of John Kerry’a remarks that the drone issue will be over in six months. The US government statement made it clear that no timeframe could be given for that. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is due to visit New York in September to attend the UN general assembly session and is expected to meet the US President. Hopefully, the drone issue would be sorted out at that level.
Irritants in relationship do seem strong in nature, but critics of Pak-US ties must also not lose sight of the fact that high level contacts, invariably, prove beneficial, and may well bring positive results in this case also. After all goodwill in bilateral ties, has been on firm footing and there is no reason why it cannot be solidified further.
Viewed against this backdrop, the visit of the US Secretary of State does appear to be a productive one, although its fuller impact will be judged with the passage of time.