The South Asia Channel

A diplomatic reality check

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s memories of Washington cannot be pretty. He was last in town in July 1999, when he met then-President Bill Clinton to discuss the escalation of tensions amongst India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of Kashmir, an area long disputed between the two neighbors. Four months later, Sharif was out ...


Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s memories of Washington cannot be pretty. He was last in town in July 1999, when he met then-President Bill Clinton to discuss the escalation of tensions amongst India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of Kashmir, an area long disputed between the two neighbors. Four months later, Sharif was out of a job.

Sharif’s own Chief of Army Staff, Pervez Musharraf, initiated the coup that led to his ouster after Sharif pulled troops out of Kargil — at Clinton’s urging — to avoid any further escalation. His entrée into the "military’s space" by initiating these troop withdrawals ultimately led to his downfall.

This time around, Sharif is in a much stronger position politically. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, dominates the National Assembly as a result of its landslide victory in the May elections earlier this year. The military, a perpetual thorn in the side of the civilian government, is showing no visible signs of getting in Sharif’s way for the time being. The government is about to receive a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund to breathe life back into the country’s economy. Sharif’s economic team seems to be making all the right noises on other aspects of economic reform, mainly in the privatization of state-owned steel mills and railways, as well as improvements in the energy sector.

This week, Sharif is in Washington, where he will meet President Barack Obama on Wednesday for an official visit at the White House. Meeting with Obama is typically a sign of strength for foreign leaders back home, but in Pakistan, the American president is so unpopular that Sharif wins no domestic brownie points for the meeting. In fact, it could hurt Sharif or be used against him. When he returns to Pakistan, any dramatic moves on security issues could be construed as a response to American pressure, real or not.

Furthermore, the strengths of Sharif’s government are irrelevant under the current circumstances, especially on the issues the United States cares about the most. While his engagements with the American business and development communities will be more positive, Sharif will face "hard messages" from Obama and other American officials that won’t be as easily answered. Among many issues, high on the White House’s agenda will be the drawdown in Afghanistan, the lingering al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan, the recent uptick in tensions with India, and everlasting concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. High on Pakistan’s agenda will be pushing for an end to CIA drone strikes, asking for continued assistance in fighting the Pakistani Taliban, and seeking more information on NATO’s plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan.   

If it sounds like nothing’s changed, that’s because it hasn’t. A combination of patronage, pressure, and mixed messages has always defined U.S.-Pakistan relations. In December 1998, when Sharif traveled to Washington at Clinton’s invitation, security concerns at the time centered on India and nonproliferation. When President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington in January 2011 for the memorial service of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke, he was lucky Obama even met with him. Some American policy advisors at the time seriously questioned Pakistan’s willingness to disrupt the Taliban, viewing the country’s "double game" with the militants as reason enough to deny Zardari an audience with Obama.

While military ruler-turned-president Pervez Musharraf received a much warmer reception in Washington during his 2006 trip, he too faced the music when dealing with American officials on Pakistan’s relations with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and its nuclear weapons program. Another military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, probably enjoyed the highest level of American patronage in the history of Pakistani leaders — the result of his covert cooperation with the United States in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. But during his 1980 visit to Washington, even Zia faced pressure from the Carter administration to give up Islamabad’s secretly expanding nuclear program.    

Given the trends, it is apparent that Sharif will have the same kind of trip every other Pakistani leader to the United States has had: beset with unrealistic expectations in Washington and Islamabad; a scramble for "deliverables" identifying progress in the relationship; disappointment that the White House did not grant the Pakistanis the coveted "state visit;" mixed messages on both sides about how "hard" and "soft" the talking points were; and an underlying cynicism questioning the existence of the "unholy alliance" between the two countries. In all fairness, the same circumstances apply when American officials travel to Pakistan.

It is easy to get excited at the prospect of high-level engagements; such visits offer a potential pivot moment for bilateral relationships going through difficult times. We all know how badly the United States and Pakistan need a pivot, but the two countries may have already moved beyond that point. The visit occurs at a time when the countries have initiated a period of more subdued, private, and pragmatic engagement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Pakistan in August was an initial attempt to "open a new chapter" in the relationship. The recent release of $1.6 billion in military and economic aid was possible because "ties have improved enough to allow the money to flow again." And while the recent decreased frequency of drone strikes does not appear to be coordinated, it probably doesn’t hurt.  

This new tone and approach can be helped along by strong diplomatic ties at the highest levels of government — a condition that has been lacking in both U.S. and Pakistani policymaking circles for several years. Sharif’s visit to Washington this week gives both him and Obama an opportunity to formally begin a professional relationship that could do just that.

But as in all things U.S. and Pakistan, a heavy dose of reality is recommended. The two countries face many potential pitfalls as they look towards 2014 when NATO departs Afghanistan, and high-level diplomacy alone cannot ensure that Pakistan and the United States successfully avoid them. Coordination between American and Pakistani militaries, intelligence services, diplomats, and development specialists will also be in demand; engagement on many of these fronts is still recovering from the conflicts of the past two years, whether it be the Osama bin Laden raid, the Raymond Davis incident, or the cross-border incident at Salala. At the least, the Sharif-Obama discussion will offer a taste of what challenges lay ahead and one way to engage on them.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.