A Test for Nawaz Sharif


His US visit will set the tone for Pakistan-US relations

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is on a visit to the United States at a time when the country is facing security challenges and needs a revival of the economy. The last time he went there was on 4 July, 1999, to seek US mediation to stop the Kargil war. Exactly after 100 days he was toppled by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf on 12 October, 1999.

However, after the long military dictatorship (1999-2008) the process of democracy has been strengthening. For Nawaz Sharif, this visit to the United States is an important one, just like the ones he undertook to Saudi Arabia and China following his victory in May 2013 elections. Even so, both President Barack Obama and Nawaz Sharif have been in contact with each other as the former congratulated him on his party’s victory in the general elections.

It is against this backdrop that Nawaz Sharif is once again on a visit to Washington but this time around he is there to discuss the post-US withdrawal situation in Afghanistan, along with US-operated Predator-drone attacks on FATA, the release of Dr Afia Siddiqui, US aid to Pakistan, trade and investment issues, energy cooperation, strategic dialogue and counterterrorism.

Besides his meeting with Obama, Mr Sharif has had meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and interacted with Congressmen. He also attended a business event organised by the US-Pakistan Business Council, and addressed the United States Institute of Peace and the Pakistani-American community.

The United States will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan next year. It is not definite yet whether the US would maintain 10,000 troops behind in Kabul or not to assist the future Afghan government. The fact is that among Pakistani politicians, the Sharif government is the best bet for the US to coordinate with for its drawdown strategy. He would not allow an interventionist policy toward Afghanistan as he apparently believes in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. This also fulfills US future strategic interests in Afghanistan. Talks are already taking place between Pakistan government and the Taliban and this should not be sabotaged by any internal or external element, for peace is most difficult to obtain in Afghanistan.

Pakistan could only become a useful partner in this whole security scenario if it is economically stable. The US has been an important trading partner of Pakistan among developed countries. Pakistan’s exports to the US have been around US$ 3 billion during 2004-11 while imports have been around US$ 2 billion. They are somehow stagnant and need to be expanded. On the other hand, the US has been the third largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Pakistan after Hong Kong and the United Kingdom in 20012-13, whereas it was the top investor in Pakistan during 2007-12. As a sign of improvement in bilateral ties, the US has offered US$ 1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan that was suspended after the Abbottabad episode in May 2011.

Relations between the two further deteriorated after the Salala killings of Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. Pakistan then boycotted the Bonn moot on Afghanistan and evicted the US troops from Shamsi air base from which it flew drones for attacks on FATA. Reacting further, Pakistan cut off logistics supply of NATO containers. Some reconciliation was made when Pakistan participated at the Chicago Conference on the future of Afghanistan. Later, Pakistan restored NATO supplies which was much appreciated by the United States. Relations have gradually improved after that.

Coming back to investment relations, both need to make investment institutionalised to strengthen their bilateral economic ties. Stumbling blocks to the bilateral investment treaty between the two states should also be removed to further create a level-playing ground between the two. Strangely, bilateral talks have been going on around a decade without any concrete outcome yet.

In fact, terms demanded by the US for the resolution of disputes are so stringent that they bypass all domestic channels for arbitration. This has become the main impediment in the negotiations. Pakistan has signed as many as 47 bilateral investment treaties with different countries. Many of these agreements were signed without careful vetting. As a rule of thumb, local courts shall be allowed to listen to litigation cases first. This principle should be implied to bilateral investment treaty to be signed with the US.

Regionally, skirmishes have been taking place along the Line of Control for a few months between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. On this front, Mr Sharif has been pressing hard to resolve the Kashmir dispute through bilateral negotiation with India under the composite dialogue process and through some international interlocutor. Kashmir, however, seems unchanged as US policy on Kashmir has not changed by an iota as stated by an American official. It however states that it encourages a dialogue between Pakistan and India on Kashmir to determine its future. The Americans are not in a mood to irk India at this point in time when they are forging a strategic partnership with it to counter China. The Sino-Pakistani Gwadar cooperation also displeases America.

Many are looking at the outcome of Mr Sharif’s demand for an end to the drone attacks on FATA which now the United States operates from inside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. So far 364 drone attacks have killed 2,830 people during 2004-13 in Pakistan. Pakistan has taken up the matter to the United Nations, pressing hard that such attacks were illegal under the international law and according to all human rights conventions. They are also a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. They have proved to be counterproductive towards fight against terrorism. The collateral damage of these attacks has been fuelling militancy and terrorism. This must come to an end.

Sharif’s success on his Washington yatra depends on getting these drone attacks stopped. If he fails, he would face severe criticism in Pakistan. If continued the drone attacks have the potential to derail the recently announced peace process with Taliban. It remains to be seen of the US would continue with the drone attacks or give peace and reconciliation with the Taliban a chance before drawdown begins in Afghanistan.

The catchy slogan ‘more trade than aid’ would not impress a common man in Pakistan. At least until industrial infrastructure gets a complete overhaul. The Sharif government has a lot to prove.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISS or of the Government of Pakistan.