The South Asia Channel

The General’s Shot at Improving U.S.-Pakistan Relations

With Pakistani military chief General Raheel Sharif's visit to Washington, it’s time for the United States and Pakistan to get real about the tough issues.

Pakistan Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif gestures after arriving at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake near Colombo on June 5, 2015. General Sharif is on a four-day official visit to Sri Lanka.  AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA        (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistan Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif gestures after arriving at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake near Colombo on June 5, 2015. General Sharif is on a four-day official visit to Sri Lanka. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, arrived in Washington on Nov. 15, merely three weeks after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to town. The word among insiders is that the general’s visit will be more significant, given the Pakistani army’s hold over key security and foreign policy issues in the country. Indeed, many in Pakistan and the United States believe that Prime Minister Sharif and his civilian administration have been rendered largely irrelevant on the questions that matter most to Washington.

This power differential implies that much of what the prime minister committed to during his Washington visit can be discounted in favor of what the general conveys this week. Admittedly, this reflects past instances when Pakistani civilian and military authorities approached Washington with contradictory messages, and the military ultimately prevailed.

But there is a crucial difference this time. Even though Pakistan’s army may be in the driver’s seat, Prime Minister Sharif hasn’t aggressively confronted General Sharif, belying expectations. Instead, he and his army chief have maintained a fairly healthy rapport, even as the institutions they command clash from time to time — most recently last week, courtesy of a public statement by the army, shaming the government for its slow implementation of the National Action Plan to counter terrorism. The prime minister certainly doesn’t have the final word in the relationship, but he and the general seem to have found a workable equilibrium. Most notably, they regularly coordinate on important foreign policy and security issues.

This reality makes the Pakistani prime minister’s messages to Washington during his October visit far more consequential than assumed. His (and Washington’s) signaling on the three most important issues — Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons — during his trip left open possibilities of fresh misunderstandings, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Gen. Sharif’s time in Washington should be used to clarify each side’s stance on each of these issues.

First, Afghanistan. Talking to folks in Washington and Islamabad, it seems that they took each other’s messaging on the subject during Prime Minister Sharif’s trip to be business as usual. True, a lot of the standard talking points were heard. These statements also made it into the Obama-Sharif joint statement. But Prime Minister Sharif did make one extremely consequential declaration during his public speech on Oct. 23 at the U.S. Institute of Peace, his last stop in town. While discussing Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s peace process, he remarked that Pakistan “cannot bring them [the Taliban] to the table and kill them at the same time.”

This has, arguably, long been Pakistan’s operational policy. For various reasons, Pakistan has had an interest in helping start the peace negotiation process in Afghanistan, but only if it does not entail direct military action against the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Pakistan. And yet, Pakistan’s leadership has never presented this view so candidly to the Washington policy community — let alone making this admission only a day after the Obama-Sharif joint statement, which seemed far more sympathetic to the United States’ “do more” refrain.  Despite this, Prime Minister Sharif’s intended message should be interpreted as a signal that there won’t be any significant military operation against the Taliban and Haqqanis, period.

That’s bad news for those who may still be hoping that hard talk with Pakistan on the Haqqani issue will deliver results. However, this is an opportunity for both sides to move beyond their tendency to talk past each other when it comes to Afghanistan. This week is the time to tackle this issue head on. If both sides could begin to define the limits of their cooperation in light of this reality and identify how best to exploit the common ground that remains, it would help advance policy on Afghanistan. Continuing to ignore Pakistan’s stance on these militants will only continue to prompt Pakistani leaders to promise more than they intend to deliver.

Second, India. After years of having toned down its anti-India rhetoric, Pakistan has once again elevated its relations with India to the top of its list of talking points. This renewed focus has been accompanied by the rather reflexive Pakistani tendency to request third-party intervention, and its belief that Washington can be persuaded to intervene. The fact that the prime minister managed to get a mention of Kashmir and recognition of India and Pakistan’s “mutual concerns” on terrorism into the joint statement must have encouraged Pakistan further.

This inclusion risks creating false hope in Pakistan that Washington is willing to accord more importance to the Indo-U.S. partnership. While I have personally never been convinced that India and Pakistan can bridge their differences without outside prodding, the reality is that there is no notable constituency in Washington that thinks it is a good idea for the United States to jump into the fray. Gen. Sharif’s visit should be used to manage expectations on this front by being candid about the fact that Washington is unlikely to go beyond backing dialogue between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Finally: the nuclear deal issue. Conversations on this issue during the prime minister’s trip did not go according to plan. The Pakistani side perceives that the United States wants only to curb its program. At the same time, the U.S. side is peeved at what it believes was duplicitous Pakistani behavior during the negotiations.

I worry that the bad experience may force this discussion into cold storage for some time. The many sensitivities of this topic aside, there isn’t any way out of it other than continuing to talk about how, and under what arrangement, Pakistan could be mainstreamed into the international nuclear order. No other option can ease Pakistan’s concerns about being singled out — this, in no small part, is responsible for driving its nuclear build up — and the world’s anxieties about the current trajectory of the Pakistani program. Both sides must use this week to agree to continue quiet conversations on the subject, even if there isn’t a mutually agreeable end game yet in sight.

Prime Minister Sharif’s visit left discussions on these critical issues hanging in the balance. If his visit is followed by candid conversations that deal with the real divergences in U.S. and Pakistani interests in South Asia, we could move towards limited, but more honest and realistic expectations of each other. Gen. Sharif’s trip to Washington is the opportunity to kick-start that process.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Moeed Yusuf is the associate vice president at the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia. The book examines crises between regional nuclear powers and specifically the role of stronger third parties in crisis management. This article draws on and extends the findings of the book.

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