The South Asia Channel

Pakistan to America: What have you done for us lately?

Next week, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials will meet in Washington for the first ever strategic dialogue between the two countries. The Pakistani delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, but make no mistake: at least when it comes to the Pakistani side, this will be the Gen. Ashfaq Kayani show. If ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Next week, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials will meet in Washington for the first ever strategic dialogue between the two countries. The Pakistani delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, but make no mistake: at least when it comes to the Pakistani side, this will be the Gen. Ashfaq Kayani show.

If there was any ambiguity remaining as to who’s the principal architect of Pakistan’s national security policy, then it should have dissipated on Tuesday, when Kayani chaired a meeting of federal secretaries — the first time an army chief has done so under a civilian government. They met at the army’s general headquarters, instead of the originally designated venue, the ministry of foreign affairs. Kayani sought to coordinate the government’s agenda for the upcoming talks with the United States, which includes security issues as well as non-military topics, such as agriculture and energy.  

When Kayani and company roll into Washington, their objective will be to maximally capitalize upon Pakistan’s peaking strategic value as it pertains to U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a closing window of opportunity to successfully press for its interests more assertively. The Pakistanis, with good reason, believe the United States has one foot out of Afghanistan — even as it surges its presence there — and is dependent on Pakistan to secure a favorable and efficient endgame. At the same time, they fear that an end to the Afghan war and a drop in Pakistan’s utility for the United States will result in a colder, tougher approach by Washington toward Islamabad, combined with a warmer American embrace of arch-rival India. So, for the Pakistani establishment (its military, allied bureaucracy, and political fellow travelers), the challenge is to leverage its short-term utility for the United States to extract benefits that will stretch over a longer-term and insure against potential future losses.

Broadly, the Pakistani establishment seeks to secure Pakistan’s influence in a post-American Afghanistan, deny India a strategic pivot there, and maintain a reasonable degree of strategic parity with rising India. More specifically, Pakistan seeks "tangible deliverances" [sic] — the most ambitious, and perhaps improbable, of them being a civil nuclear deal with the United States akin to the one with India.

Despite statements to the contrary, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains transactional and wanting of a long-term vision. American officials frequently state that Pakistan must "do more" to combat militants in its border region with Afghanistan — the phrase has been said so much that it’s become a part of the local political lexicon — and now Pakistani officials are returning the favor. Cementing a U.S.-Pakistan partnership will require forging a shared regional vision. And that will be difficult to develop as long as India remains intransigent on the issue of Kashmir, Pakistan continues to support anti-India insurgents and terrorists (some of whom, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, might have extra-regional ambitions), and both the United States and Pakistan deepen alliances with each other’s rivals (respectively, China and India).

But progress could perhaps be made if Washington delicately reduces New Delhi’s expectations for influence in Kabul, facilitates Pakistan’s partial movement in favor of "good" actors in Afghanistan and push against the Afghan Taliban, and prods both India and Pakistan further along the negotiation table. There is no perfect formula for stability in South Asia, but it will require both India and Pakistan to learn how to share space and for the bigamous United States to carefully manage its relationship with its two warring wives.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).

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