Monday, October 21, 2013

Drones may be off agenda at Obama-Sharif talks

Islamabad: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif goes to the White House on Wednesday more in hope than expectation.

His first meeting with US President Barack Obama is an important marker for the two countries' troubled relationship, but neither Mr Sharif nor Mr Obama can expect much.

Undoubtedly, both sides will bring shopping lists of what they want from the other, but they will know better than to presume to cross too many items off.

For years, the uneasy alliance between the US and Pakistan has been transactional. Reduced to its simplest terms: support in the war on terror in exchange for aid and a powerful international friend.

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But now Pakistan has nothing left to give. And the one thing it wants most of all, the US is not prepared to offer.

Mr Sharif will tell Mr Obama that the controversial US drone program must be abandoned. He will insist the drones are unlawful and a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. More tellingly, he will argue they are the terrorists' most potent recruiting tool, driving scores of young men to become suicide bombers and gunmen.

But the US won't countenance it. A dozen years of war in Afghanistan and nine in Iraq came at the cost of too many lives. The drones, for all of their dubious legality, are a comparatively painless way for the US to fight its battles.

Mr Sharif's visit to the White House is a key step in trying to rebuild a fractured relationship, one marked by long-standing mistrust and catastrophic missteps.

Its most recent nadir was in 2011. CIA agent Raymond Davis shot dead two men in a Lahore street, the US found and killed Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in a massive compound about a kilometre from Pakistan's major military academy, and 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an accidental attack by US helicopters on a border post.

Since then, improvement has been slow, and new personalities - a new Pakistani Prime Minister, a new US Secretary of State – haven't yet yielded the progress both sides require.

Because as much as they might wish otherwise, Pakistan and the US need each other.

The US can't fight its war in Afghanistan without at least some measure of support from Pakistan. Taliban fighters regularly wash back and forth across the border, and it's a firm belief in the US, and a source of lingering resentment, that Pakistan doesn't do enough to attack, and may even support, the extremists in their Pakistani mountain strongholds.

The US will also need Pakistan onside if it is to convince the Taliban to sit down to meaningful talks, the oft-promised, oft-delayed negotiations to bring peace.

The US also wants Pakistan to cancel its nuclear contracts with China, which it regards as dangerous proliferation.

More prosaically, the US needs Pakistan's co-operation in moving billion of dollars worth of equipment out of Afghanistan as it withdraws troops next year. That equipment can only come out by land, and only via Pakistan.

Pakistan, for all its noisy rhetoric around sovereignty and independence, is still heavily reliant on US aid.

It will accept more than $US2.2 billion in economic and security-related aid from the US this year (despite Congressional efforts to stem some of that flow), and the country's moribund economy, most particularly its crippling energy crisis, would sink even further – to nobody's benefit - without substantial foreign assistance.

In the lead-up to these talks, the quid pro quo has begun.

It's hardly coincidental that the US on Saturday quietly released $US1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan that was suspended in 2011.

In response, Pakistan passed the "Protection of Pakistan Ordinance", that allows for terrorists to be declared "enemies of the state", and to face swifter trials and harsher punishments.

These augur well, but there is a long way to go.

Twitter: @SouthAsiaCorro


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