How to Read the U.S.-Pakistani Restart

How to Read the U.S.-Pakistani Restart

Can Washington and Islamabad build a new strategic relationship? CFR’s Daniel Markey says John Kerry and Nawaz Sharif are off to a friendly start, but big obstacles remain on counterterror cooperation.

August 5, 2013 11:20 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

U.S. secretary of state John Kerry has kicked off an effort to restart the "strategic dialogue" with Pakistan that was suspended in 2011. CFR’s Daniel Markey says Kerry, who traveled to Islamabad last week, wants to "take advantage of the fact that there’s a new government in Islamabad under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and there will soon be a new army chief in Pakistan." The Kerry-Sharif rapport injects a "friendly realism" into this important relationship, says Markey, but he expects little immediate progress on two areas of contention—Pakistan’s unhelpful role in Afghanistan and the ongoing U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan.

Kerry_PakistanU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry points while walking away after a news conference with Sartaj Aziz (2nd R), adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs. (Photo: Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)
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After Secretary of State John Kerry finished up with the first round of Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington, he flew directly to Pakistan for meetings with Pakistani officials. What’s behind these talks?

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There are a number of different purposes. One is to begin a new dialogue, one that had really been curtailed going back to November 2011, after the friendly fire incident along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border known as the Salala incident, the bin Laden killing in May 2011, and [the incident] before that with Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis in February 2011. So the goal of the Kerry mission was to restart with the Pakistani government what they call the "strategic dialogue," and to try and get the relationship back onto a somewhat more normal track in terms of cooperation. [The mission also aimed] to take advantage of the fact that there’s a new government in Islamabad under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and there will soon be a new army chief in Pakistan.

Kerry made a point of inviting Sharif to the White House in a month to meet with President Obama. Does this personal relationship matter much?

It matters because for Pakistanis, Kerry is a known quantity and is considered to be relatively friendly as these things go. So they’re open to talking with him. It also matters because Kerry has some historical memory of Nawaz Sharif, who is a three-time prime minister now. That past history is likely, if anything, to more incline him to realism about what Sharif can actually deliver. So yes, there is a friendliness about their relationship that comes from past interaction. There is also a realism about the relatively reduced expectations that follow from that because Nawaz Sharif’s past tenures were not very successful ones and his relationship with the United States wasn’t always easy. Put these things together and what you end up with is kind of a friendly realism on both sides.

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I suppose from the Pakistani point of view, a prime concern is what the United States plans to do in Afghanistan. You get conflicting reports that the United States wants to keep a steady level of forces after 2014 or it wants to pull out almost everybody as a sign of irritation with the Karzai government. How does that stand with the Pakistanis?

The Pakistanis also send mixed messages about what they want in Afghanistan, and some of that is because they feel themselves to be kind of reactive and they really can’t read Washington’s plans especially well. The two sides reinforce the uncertainty of each other, and so that is not particularly healthy. Pakistan is looking for a stronger, firmer message about what the United States intends to do. How many forces does it plan to leave? What [are] its hopes for a future deal with the Taliban and where [does] Pakistan fit into all of that? There is this deep uncertainty about where Washington is going, and as a consequence, Pakistan has actually played a less helpful role rather than getting on board with Washington’s program and supporting it to its fullest. It has hedged its bets all the way through, and that hasn’t changed; there is nothing about what Nawaz Sharif has said or done so far that has suggested that will change.

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What is the situation on the U.S. use of drones against Taliban targets inside Pakistan? Is it still a major problem in relations?

"Unless the Pakistanis step up counterterror cooperation in unprecedented (and unlikely) ways, the drones will remain a necessary part of U.S. efforts to keep a lid on the terrorist threat."

Yes, drones continue to be a major irritant in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. There is a legitimate concern in the new Sharif government about the negative political ramifications of playing the same game as his predecessor, that is, criticizing the drones in public without actually taking steps to end them. And in spite of Kerry’s comments about trying to end the drone strikes very soon, there is also a practical reality that unless the Pakistanis step up counterterror cooperation in unprecedented (and unlikely) ways, the drones will remain a necessary part of U.S. efforts to keep a lid on the terrorist threat based along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

That doesn’t mean drone strikes can’t be scaled back in frequency; they probably can. And it doesn’t mean that Washington can’t be more transparent and cooperative with Islamabad in ways that would help Sharif politically. In any event, Kerry’s conversations with the Pakistanis are likely the beginning of a renegotiation over the drones, not the end. By suggesting that there is a light at the end of the tunnel—that drones are not a forever condition of the relationship—Kerry is signaling that the Obama administration is open to a renegotiation, within limits.

Kerry was at the center of a controversy in June about the start of peace talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government, but those talks never took place. What was the problem?

The Doha process got stalled right out of the gate because the Taliban handled it in a way that immediately offended the Karzai government. They presented themselves as another face to the Afghan state, flying a flag and posting signs with the old name of Afghanistan under Taliban leadership. This immediately sent Karzai into a rage and basically killed the beginning of that process. And everybody expects that eventually, the sides will get back to talking again, if they haven’t already, somehow in private or secretly. But it was a setback, and the Pakistanis, if you go back to that period, immediately came out in support of that Doha process, which is probably what they should have done. But their full-throated support of the Taliban opening that office also did not go down well with Karzai because of the way that the Taliban handled it, so the whole thing ended up being a big mess. And it hurt not only the U.S. relationship with Karzai, but it also hurt the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.

So the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are tense?

They have been. The top foreign policy adviser to Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, traveled to Kabul not long ago to try to smooth things over and it was a fine trip but the problems are pretty deep.

And it’s not easy for Washington to try and figure out what to do about Afghanistan right now?

The Obama administration would like to make commitments for the next ten years in terms of assistance to Afghanistan, in terms of some sort of civilian presence and a significantly scaled back military presence. But it’s trying to negotiate an agreement to do this with Karzai, and that’s proven to be very difficult. Washington can’t make a firm commitment until it gets a deal with Karzai, and that again goes back and sends mixed messages to Pakistan, to India, and other countries in the region.

How you would characterize Obama’s relations with Karzai?

"Washington can’t make a firm commitment until it gets a deal with Karzai, and that again goes back and sends mixed messages to Pakistan."

They have been strained from day one. Obama appears from the beginning of his administration to have wanted to shift gears from the way George Bush dealt with Karzai, which was a sort of personal palling around type of relationship. Obama saw that as unhealthy. As a consequence of trying to normalize their relationship, so to speak, it became a strained one, and at times has been a very strained one. Never close.

With Pakistan, how are Obama’s relations with the various Pakistan governments?

I don’t think that Obama has any priors with Nawaz Sharif. There are certainly other Democrats who have. The Clinton administration was there in the nineties when Sharif was in power, and had a lot to do with actually helping Sharif escape a worse fate than exile when General Pervez Musharraf came in in 1999. Most people will say that the Clintons basically helped to secure a deal that landed him in exile in Saudi Arabia rather than in jail or worse.

So now he’s back in office. It’s amazing how politicians can come back again. And the big achievement is that it’s the first time that we have had two civilian governments in a row in Pakistan.

Correct. A long history.

And there is going to be a new military commander?

This fall, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani is supposed to resign from power. He has already extended his stay in office by three years longer than is normal, so a new army chief should be appointed. The president is technically the one who appoints on a basis of recommendation from Nawaz Sharif. The army chief is very important figure, perhaps in many ways the most important—certainly when it comes to Pakistan’s nuclear and other defense policies—and so that selection in and of itself is important. But also it’s important with what is says about civil-military relations.


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