As Pakistan’s Sharif Visits, Washington Should Leverage Gains in Pakistan

Pakistan is finally getting its act together in many critical ways.

This week, when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives in Washington on an official visit, the Obama administration has an opportunity to push forward an often tumultuous bilateral relationship with a partner that is finally getting its act together in many critical ways.

Pakistan’s challenges in overcoming corruption, extremism, misgovernance, and poverty will be a generation-long struggle. But the country is on an upward trajectory, with discernable progress in moving toward becoming a rarity in a chaotic region: a pluralistic Muslim democracy capable of securing itself from internal and external threats, with plummeting levels of terrorism and sectarian violence, home to a thriving market economy.

It is the pursuit of this end state, which would be a win-win for America and the Pakistani people, that should anchor U.S. policy toward Pakistan, a nuclear power and the world’s second-largest Muslim country.

 

Relations Deteriorate and Then Stabilize

Prime Minister Sharif’s arrival in Washington symbolizes a turning point in what has been a long, circuitous journey for the United States, Pakistan and himself.

In 1999, during his second tenure as prime minister, Sharif made an emergency trip to Washington, holding a rare meeting with President Bill Clinton on July 4th as part of a bid to end the mini-war between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Months later, Sharif was ousted from power by army chief General Pervez Musharraf.

In late 2007, Sharif returned to Pakistan, in spite of U.S. opposition to him. Washington was wedded to the idea of a political alliance between Gen. Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was seen as a political liberal strong on terror.

In 2011, while Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) was on the opposition benches, relations between Islamabad and Washington deteriorated.

The year began with the killing of two Pakistanis on a Lahore street by a CIA security officer. Months later, the U.S. conducted a special operations raid deep inside Pakistani territory, killing Osama bin Laden, humiliating Islamabad and heightening resentment in Washington toward what many saw as Pakistan’s duplicitous approach on terror.

The year ended with the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. forces at the Salala check post along the border with Afghanistan. While Washington said the attack was a mistake, Pakistan shut down the Pakistan-based NATO supply route into Afghanistan, and it took months for the Obama administration to issue an apology. During this time, Pakistan also purged the country of most declared and undeclared CIA case officers.

Diplomats in both countries kept bilateral relations in a holding pattern, preventing a crash. In 2013, Sharif returned to power for the third time and made an official visit to Washington. Sharif’s party was seen in by many in Washington as a step up from his corrupt and inept predecessors. The two governments also began to discuss, and even coordinate, on the peace process in Afghanistan.

 

Pakistan’s Upward Trajectory

As relations between Islamabad and Washington have improved, so have the conditions on the ground in Pakistan.

Pakistani democracy is showing unprecedented signs of resilience. While the army continues to have an oversized, extra-constitutional role in shaping foreign and national security policy, the PML-N government is standing on its own two feet, and retains autonomy to determine non-security policy, including education, energy and the economy.

Importantly, Sharif’s PML-N withstood opposition protests in the capital last year, which are believed to have been backed by a group of retired and retiring army officers. The PML-N not only continues to rule at the center, but also in the largest province, Punjab. The party emerged victorious in hotly contested by-elections this month in Lahore. At the same time, public sentiment toward the democratic system is positive. According to a survey conducted in the summer, 66 percent of respondents view the democratic system favorably. And Sharif is the country’s most trusted politician.

A second consecutive transition of power from one democratically elected government to another is likely (though not guaranteed) in 2018, when the next general elections are scheduled. Long-delayed local government elections will be held in the two largest provinces later this year, helping strengthen the country’s democratic foundation.

Pakistan’s economy is on sturdier ground, after having avoided default in 2013. Since then, Pakistan’s GDP growth has risen, sustaining in the admittedly modest range of 4 percent. But in a sign of confidence in Pakistan’s fortunes, China is investing upwards of $46 billion in an economic and energy corridor that will connect its western regions to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.

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