Vanilla though it was, the visit to the US by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not entirely without benefit
The visit to the US by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and members of his cabinet — to say nothing of his extended family — has been decidedly muted. The visit was shortened and any opportunity to interact with people of Pakistan origin in America cancelled or severely limited. Fear of hecklers supporting political parties opposed to that of the prime minister appears the likely reason for this, though he has anyway never excelled at unscripted public speaking. There were photo-opportunities involving President Obama and Michelle Obama and the Sharif family, and one in which the cabinet members accompanying the prime minister looked like they were facing a firing squad. Despite some ill-informed speculation in the Pakistan media that some sort of civil nuclear deal/package was to be discussed/announced — it appears not to have been unless as an off-agenda item behind closed doors.
A package worth $70 million to educate girls in Pakistan was announced at a White House event hosted by Michelle Obama and attended by the prime minister’s wife and daughter; and there was a flurry of anodyne statements all to the effect that Pakistan and the US were both on the same page and holding the same playbook. Events such as this are carefully designed to be drama-free zones. Whatever ructions there might have been were in private and will be leaked — or not — at a later date.
Vanilla though it was, the visit was not entirely without benefit. The anti-American rhetoric that was in vogue a year ago has lowered, and although there are some considerable differences between Pakistan and the US, they are less than they were in the past. The US is being quietly supportive — indeed cautiously grateful as in a presidential acknowledgement that Pakistan had successfully pre-empted terrorist plots against Americans and the American homeland — no small deposit in the favour bank. The prime minister and his team met with Vice-President Joe Biden over a working breakfast, and discussed terrorism and the security situation in the subcontinent more generally, with the prime minister reiterating his government’s commitment to hunt down terrorists no matter where — including those of the Islamic State (IS) and the Haqqani network.
A flaw in the narrative appeared to be a statement to the effect that the IS would not be allowed to establish a foothold in Pakistan — which it clearly has and is currently recruiting and proselytising across the country — a horse that had bolted long before anybody in government thought to shut the stable door. As for the evidence that was in the ‘three dossiers’ regarding Indian involvement in terrorist activity within Pakistan, nothing is known. That said, there have been reports emanating from UN sources that say that it is embarrassingly weak — perhaps we will never know either way. Equally, the evidence regarding attacks on Pakistan planned and launched from Afghanistan is also opaque, but both Indian and Afghan sponsorship of anti-state activities has at least been set on the American table. Also on the table was the parlous state of relations between India and Pakistan, and the violence along the Line of Control.
Where the prime minister and cabinet members may have made an impression is on the vexed issue of trade. Pakistan has goods to sell and America is a vast market for many of the products it makes, clothing and textiles in particular. If the way could be paved for an opening of the US market, there are obvious benefits. Helpfully, President Obama said that Pakistani companies were eligible to bid for US Department of Defence procurements relative to operations in Afghanistan. We await developments.
The prime minister will return home quietly satisfied. No clangers were dropped, no gaffes made and the entire exercise was, as planned, drama free. Pakistan and America are never going to be best friends, and there will always be an element of ‘frenemy’ in this least-comfortable of contrived marriages. But for now — a calm sea and, we hope, a prosperous voyage.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2015.
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