Our Friend Pakistan

The recent talks went pretty well, but Washington and Islamabad have a long way to go in improving their relationship.

Declaring the arrival of "a new day" and a "different approach and attitude toward Pakistan," on Wednesday Secretary Clinton opened the anticipated strategic dialogue with Pakistan in an attempt to start "a new phase in our partnership" based on common interests including stability, prosperity, and opportunity. Such efforts are intended to improve the so-called mutual "trust deficit" that exists between both countries as a result of what Pakistani academic and diplomat Maleeha Lodhi calls "the burden of history," where our relationship with Islamabad alternates between engagement and estrangement as strategic priorities and the security environment have changed over the decades.

While the strategic dialogue is hosted by Secretary Clinton and her Pakistani counterpart, Foreign Minister Qureshi (the first time such talks have been held at such a high level), what is more intriguing is the participation of General Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of the Pakistani army. His presence is indicative of the military's powerful role and the importance that Pakistan is placing on these strategic talks.

There is reason to be optimistic about the current state of U.S.-Pakistani relations. Fareed Zakaria recently published an article in Newsweek that argued much of the good news coming out of Pakistan-successful and sustained military operations against militants, and improved intelligence sharing with Washington highlighted by the recent arrests of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other Taliban leaders are two examples-is a result of the Obama administration's approach to the bilateral relationship. Zakaria prudently notes that these results are tentative and recommends that the administration "keeps at it." The strategic dialogue is aligned with his recommendation.  

For its part, the Pakistani delegation is keenly aware of its importance to the U.S. AfPak strategy and is likely to leverage its position during the strategic talks. According to the Wall Street Journal, prior to meeting with American officials, Pakistan provided a fifty-six-page document outlining its desires for additional economic and military aid. Such "wish list" requests are likely to include more drone aircraft, helicopters and other military hardware. Additionally, Foreign Minister Qureshi is seeking "non-discretionary access to vital energy resources" (presumably a civilian nuclear energy deal similar to the one struck with India in 2008), as well as increased trade and access to U.S. markets.

Strategic dialogue aside, it would be naïve to think that Islamabad will act outside of its national interests. Consequently, the United States should not assume that Pakistan will suddenly execute a complete "about face" when it comes to cracking down on the Taliban, given its historical support for the movement as a means to exert control over Afghanistan. This is particularly true when one considers President Obama's announced timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops in the summer of 2011, where Pakistan might feel left alone to deal with an unstable neighbor to its west and India on its eastern flank. Maintaining ties with the Taliban might serve as a "hedge" against this strategic uncertainty. That said, there is little doubt that Pakistan's military operations in the tribal areas, in addition to the thousands of its security forces and civilians killed in recent years, suggest that the country no longer views terrorism exclusively as "America's war"-these are positive developments that should be encouraged and expanded.

Pakistan also sees itself as a mediator in reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, although this may prove to be a somewhat difficult proposition. Consider that the former head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Kai Eide, recently claimed the Baradar arrest actually hinders ongoing reconciliation efforts. Additionally, this week a delegation from the insurgent Hezb-i-Islami party (reportedly without Taliban involvement) met directly with President Karzai and offered a formal fifteen-point peace plan. For its part, the U.S. praised the Baradar arrest and continues to support the notion of reintegration and reconciliation. However, Secretary Gates is somewhat skeptical about the timing of reconciliation talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, preferring to negotiate from a position of strength that is expected to come as the AfPak strategy is fully implemented. He recently testified before Congress that "The shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose."  Looking ahead, Pakistan may yet play a significant role as a mediator to find long-term solutions for stabilizing Afghanistan.  

The Strategic Dialogue offers an opportunity to improve a sometimes rocky relationship by taking advantage of recent momentum in Pakistan's fight against terrorism. Both Washington and Islamabad have common interests that can, and should, be fully discussed and resourced. In addition to expanded military aid, non-military assistance will be critical in changing Pakistan's perceptions about America and its intentions in the region. In her opening remarks, Secretary Clinton highlighted the five-year, $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar-Berman initiative that provides a long-term investment in Pakistan's economy and civilian institutions. She also put the strategic into the proper perspective, stating that: