Mr. Sharif comes to Washington

Mr. Sharif comes to Washington

by Akbar Ahmed

During his first official visit to Washington, Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif spoke on Oct. 21 at a dinner with the Pakistani community in the United States.

Putting aside his prepared text, Sharif told the audience in Urdu that he met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and CIA Director John Brennan the previous night. “What can we do for you?,” Kerry had asked Sharif. “Nothing,” Sharif said he replied, adding that he was probably the first leader of Pakistan not to ask America for anything. He emphasized he was looking for trade, not aid.

A meeting between an American president in his second term who is widely perceived as a lame duck and a third-time prime minister of Pakistan is unlikely to produce any dramatic results. But considering how important the two countries are to each other, and how frayed relations have become between them, even a routine meeting is significant.

The official visit, in fact, marked a fundamental change in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Although Sharif did not resolve his concerns over U.S. drone strikes, he asserted Pakistan’s growing autonomy and independence from American influence.


First, China


The United States made the right gestures to make the prime minister feel welcome in Washington. Before his visit, the U.S. promised to release $1.6 billion as part of its military and economic aid. The White House declared that the “visit will highlight the importance and resilience of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship” and Kerry said relations between the two “could not be more important.”

Sharif’s order of priority in international affairs, however, can be seen by the fact that his first Washington visit followed official visits to China and Saudi Arabia. The former is a strategically important neighbor, and the latter a religiously and culturally important country.


In his speech to the U.S. Pakistani community, Sharif talked about the economic corridor between Kashgar in western China and Gwadar on the coast of Baluchistan in Pakistan’s south that he had agreed on with China. He visualized Gwadar as a port that would outstrip Dubai in the future. While Sharif was in Washington, his younger brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister of the Punjab, was visiting China to sign energy deals.

Still, Pakistan had important short-term and long-term issues to discuss with the U.S. The prime minister’s visit underlined the importance of economic, commercial, and military ties.


Drones and internal security


High on Sharif’s list of concerns is the use of drones, which the White House continues to defend. Drone strikes are highly unpopular among most Pakistanis. Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”) political party and National Assembly member, had promised to order the Pakistan air force to shoot them down if he became prime minister. Pakistani activist and author Malala Yousafzai blamed drone strikes for much of the anger and violence emanating from the tribal areas, and registered her qualms to President Obama during her October 11 visit to the Oval Office.

Before he came to power, Sharif condemned the use of drones out of hand, insisting they must be stopped, and offered “unconditional dialogue” with the Taliban. During his Oct. 21 dinner speech, he justified his position by citing the example of the United Kingdom in dealing with the violence in Northern Ireland.

The Taliban have escalated the internal security crisis with increased attacks. Last month, they not only launched the worst assault ever on the Christian community by killing and injuring some 200 people in a historic church in Peshawar on a Sunday, but also assassinated a general of the Pakistan army and the law minister of the province in separate incidents.

Sharif has been in government for several months and the internal bleeding continues. Until Sharif can get a grip on the law and order situation, his ambitious plans for the economy will remain in jeopardy.


Clearing the air


Yet the timing for winning Washington’s assistance with Pakistan’s security was poor. With the White House preoccupied with the bitter internal wrangling that forced a government shutdown and with negotiating a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year, the chances for clarity on America’s future role in Central Asia were small. The region is already attracting a great number of Asian powers looking for ways to fill the potential vacuum. Major players Russia, China and India, as well as Afghanistan’s neighbors Iran and Pakistan, are already positioning themselves for America’s departure from the Afghan arena.

Nothing remarkable was achieved in the prime minister’s visit to Washington. Sharif certainly did not get the reassurance he wanted about drone strikes and the hightened internal tensions they have caused in Pakistan. But at least the bad air between the two countries was cleared for the moment. That, in itself, is progress.


Originally published on AlJazeera America and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author.  Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington DC and author of The Thistle and the Drone:How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam (Brookings Press 2013).Craig Considine is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, University of Dublin. He was Ahmed’s film director for “Journey into America” (2009), a documentary feature film on America and will direct the upcoming “Journey into Europe”.


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