After a number of false starts US Secretary of State, John Kerry finally did arrive in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on the 31st July.It was far from being the extended visit that had originally been planned. Scheduling difficulties, associated with Kerry’s preoccupation with the commencement of the Israel-Palestine talks and the ongoing US-Russian efforts to convene a Geneva II on Syria possibly played a part in determining the length of the visit. With the benefit of hind sight however one can speculate that his security handlers had some inkling of the “internet Chatter” emanating from Ayman Al-Zawahiri-allegedly from a base in Pakistan-and calling for attacks on American or American related targets in the Muslim world and wanted the visit to be kept short. Certainly such concerns must have been heightened by the daring attack on the Jail in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pukhtunkhwaprovince, just two days before Kerry’s visit. Among the 250 odd prisoners who escaped some 35-40 were considered high-value terrorists or their accomplices.
While some of Kerry’s advisers may have attached importance to the security facet of this incident his political advisers however focused on another aspect. In pre-arrival briefings for the press party accompanying Kerry, State Department officials noted that the issues they intended raising included counterterrorism, cross-border militancy, and suggested that this incident would be “exhibit A” in establishing that the new government needed to exert more sovereignty to get control over extremism and to be able to succeed in anything that was of “core importance”. In fact throughout the briefing there was a constant emphasis on the fact as there had been in the past that it was facile to be drawing distinctions between extremist groups. The briefers conceded that there may be some groups with whom results could be obtained through dialogue while with others military force would be necessary.
Other important points made in this briefing were that the relationship had improved steadily since last summer, that the general level of cooperation had improved, that the movement of NATO supplies and the drawdown of equipment through the Pakistani land routes were proceeding smoothly and this was not therefore an item on the agenda for the talks Kerry would have and lastly that they were encouraged by the visit the visit the PM’s adviser on Foreign Affairs had paid to Kabul to place Pak-Afghan relations on an even keel. They recalled that even while the strategic dialogue at the Ministerial level had been suspended discussions had been held at the working officials level on five elements- economics and finance, stability, defence energy, and counterterrorism and law enforcement during the course of the last year.
Kerry, himself, in his public appearances and statements made all the right noises. He emphasised “America does not want to have a transactional relationship, we do not want to have a relationship based on the moment or based on an issue such as counterterrorism or Afghanistan, but we want a relationship with the people of Pakistan for the long term.” As regards the issue of extremism he suggested that this was a choice the people of Pakistan would have to make. “Will the forces of violent extremism be allowed to grow more dominant, eventually overpowering the moderate majority he asked rhetorically and provided the answer, “I believe Pakistanis are going to recommit to the values that are espoused by the founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who helped people come together to build a stable, moderate democracy and an economically vibrant and tolerant nation that is at peace with itself and its neighbours.”
He reminded his Pakistani listeners that “the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined” and that “addressing the threat that is posed by cross-border militancy is a key aspect of our Strategic Dialogue. This is a challenge that cannot be met by any one country. It will take a united effort to resolve the issues of safe havens and political reconciliation”
Before turning to the subject of drone attacks and the Pakistani response to the emphasis on cooperation in “stemming cross border militancy” it would perhaps be worthwhile to note what could be seen as the positive results of the visit. First, Kerry announced that the “Strategic Dialogue” at the Minister level would be resumed. Second he conveyed to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif an invitation from President Obama to visit Washington.
These were both things that the new government desired. The first would permit the new government to lay out at a suitably high level what it needed by way of economic assistance and by way of increased market access. (Mr. Sartaj Aziz stated that Pakistan wanted to increase the volume of trade between the two countries from the current $5 billion to $11 billion. Presumably he is hoping that like the EU the US would grant preferential treatment for Pakistani textile exports but this will face formidable obstacles in Washington where the textile manufacturers lobby opposes such concessions even while it knows that increased imports from Pakistani would displace Chinese or other imports rather than affecting local production). Pakistan does desperately need both increased assistance and increased market access but if optimal results are to be obtained the new government must ensure that its preparations for the discussions are better than they have been in the past.
Kerry said during his visit that of the $7.5 billion that was promised as economic assistance under the Kerry Lugar-Berman Bill starting in 2009, some $3.5 billion had been disbursed. There is however little on the ground to show for it. It was indicative that Kerry could only point to the assistance rendered to Pakistan’s energy sector, which it was claimed had added 1000 MWs to Pakistan’s generating capacity, as the most significant result of American aid. And yet for this project related to upgrading some hydel and some thermal power projects and improving transmission and distribution systems the total allocation was less than $300 million. How much of this aid has been wasted? The reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan highlight many incomplete projects or unneeded projects and enormous wastages owing to subcontracting or inadequate supervision. Admittedly the conditions in Pakistan were perhaps not as bad as in Afghanistan but it would be fair to say that even in Pakistan less than 40% of the aid could be considered truly effective and delivered. An American analyst talking of America’s aid giving experience has said, “We need to remember that we have done at least as badly in planning and managing aid as the worst recipient country has done in using it." Well-prepared projects may help to ensure that the much reduced assistance that the US will now offer is better utilised.
Second a new leader in Pakistan always eagerly awaits an invitation from Washington. It is perhaps perceived to be a signal of the global acceptability of the new government. This time however it would be fair to say that it will have more than symbolic significance. The visit will probably take place in September either just before or just after the opening of the UN General Assembly session and at that time it can be anticipated that the Afghan situation will remain fraught, though there may have been some easing of Pak-Afghan tension after Karzai has been in Pakistan as one hopes will happen by the end of this month. The meeting will be a difficult one for the visiting Prime Minister
Obama will attempt to be conciliatory but given recent developments in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula will no doubt tell him that Al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas remains a potent force and that America will continue efforts to eliminate the remnants particularly Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In other words he will ask for Pakistan’s understanding for the continuance of the drone attacks. He will also press the Prime Minister on the subject of “Safe Havens” that the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan. Kerry hinted in his public appearance at the fact that the details of such havens and of cross border activity were discussed in his meetings in Islamabad and asserted that it was because further discussion was needed on these that the “Strategic Dialogue” was being recommenced immediately.
There will also be discussion of the actions that Pakistan intends taking against the TTP (Tehreek-eTaliban of Pakistan) whose leaders have very publicly sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar. The TTP is focused primarily on fighting the Pakistani state but its various factions also send forces into Afghanistan. While what exactly transpired in the private discussions in Islamabad is not known but Mr. Sartaj Aziz in the joint press conference with Kerry said with regard to the TTP, “obviously dialogue has to go along with military action, so we will explore that option first. And if that doesn’t work, then we’ll see under what conditions and by what timeframe we’ll do the alternative actions.” He went on to add that the Pakistan armed forces were overstretched and concluded that “partly it’s a question of capacity, partly it’s a question of timing, and the other options without which the basic objectives cannot be achieved”.
Following the recent spate of terrorist incidents in Pakistan particularly the two attacks in Quetta, the capital of the disturbed Baluchistan Province, the Prime Minister has asked his Interior Minister to prepare a report on how best the terrorism issue can be handled. Perhaps before the PM goes to Washington there will also be the All-Parties Conference that the Prime Minister has been trying to convene to evolve a consensus policy on this issue. If such a consensus is reached the PM will be better placed to discuss this issue.
One subject that figured prominently during the Kerry visitwas the drone attacks on Pakistan soil. Kerry defended these attackspointing out that when questions of violations of sovereignty were raised Pakistanis should remember, “ an al-Qaida leader like al-Zawahiri is violating the sovereignty of this country. And when they attack people in mosques and blow up people in villages and in marketplaces, they are violating the sovereignty of the country.” He did however say in a TV interview, after referring to Obama’s famous speech at the NDU in which he had laid out the legal rationale for the drone attacks and had talked of there was a definite timeline to end drone attacks and that this would happen “soon”. A clarification was soon offered by the State Department saying that there was no definite timeline and that “ "In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises”. Much was made of this issue and Kerry’s remarks in the American and Pakistani media but no serious analyst of Pak-US relations or of America’s security policy believed that these strikes were going to end soon. A notable point however was that in recent months there have been no “signature strikes i.e. strikes on groups of people whose behaviour patterns suggested that they were terrorists and the number of attacks has been significantly lower than in the past. According to a reliable tally, the number of drone attacks in 2013 was 16 so far as against 48 in 2012 and 122 in 2010. While accurate information is not available it does seem from the reporting that in these attacks the targets have been Arab, Uzbek and Chechen Al-Qaeda operatives or leaders of the TTP that Pakistan wanted eliminated. Pakistan, howeveras Sartaj Aziz made clear at the joint press conference, wanted the drone attacks to be stopped and not just curtailed. This will remain a point of contention between the two sides.
All in all it can be said that Kerry had made an effort to put US-Pak relations on the path of normalisation. He argued, “we cannot allow events that might divide us in a small way to distract from the common values and the common interests that unite us in big ways”. Whether this reasoning would be accepted remains open to question in a Pakistan where anti-American sentiment has been growing over the years…