Late last week, with all of Washington's attention focused on Israel-Palestine diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry quietly sneaked out the back door and flew off to tackle another thorny challenge: Pakistan. While in Islamabad, Kerry announced that the United States-Pakistan strategic dialogue would be resumed in order to foster "deeper, broader and more comprehensive partnership." These fine words will need a lot of hard work to back them up. It would help if President Obama's administration also came to the table with a big new idea to re-energize its difficult relationship with Islamabad.
Relations between the two sides hit rock bottom in 2011 and 2012 and have barely leveled-off since then. Policymakers on both sides now say they appreciate the need for better cooperation and are looking for a way to turn the page. Such a change would be welcome, since the U.S. has important stakes in Pakistan that will persist for decades to come. Nuclear-armed and likely to be the fifth-most populous state in the world by mid-century, Pakistan's trajectory will affect more than just Afghanistan and the battle against Islamist extremism, if only because it shares borders with the two rising giants of Asia: China and India. Pakistan is a long-term challenge from which the U.S. cannot shy away.
A "turning of the page" with Pakistan would also be timely, since 2013 is a year of leadership transition in Islamabad, starting with the May election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and continuing this fall with the appointment of a new army chief. They will sit across the negotiating table from a strikingly new cast of U.S. diplomats and national security officials as well.