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Can Kerry Fix US-Pakistan Relationship? Not Overnight


Secretary Kerry landed in Pakistan yesterday, and the international media was quick to note the cordial welcome he received,  which seemed a far cry from the dark days of 2011 and 2012 when Islamabad and Washington were at each others’ throats. On the surface, at least, the relationship appears to be back on track: President Obama congratulated Pakistan’s new president, Nawaz Sharif, on his recent election victory, and Sharif has promised that Pakistan would help the US withdraw from Afghanistan. There was much smiling and handshaking for Secretary Kerry and his Pakistani counterparts during his visit.

Fortunately for Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to be moving away from the “zero” option, which would leave Afghanistan without any American troops to advise and help fight the Taliban and allied rebel groups. Pakistan wants the US to commit to stabilizing Afghanistan for at least a while longer. Obama administration officials appear to agree.

Does this mean we’re entering a new period of warm relations between the two countries? “Don’t bet on it,” Michael Kugelman writes for Foreign Policy. “Behind the bonhomie, trouble lurks.” There are disagreements that won’t be dissolved by smiles and vague promises to help one another out. For one thing, the civilian leaders of Pakistan aren’t really in charge. Nawaz Sharif has called repeatedly for US drone strikes on Pakistani territory to cease immediately. Normally when a head of state orders such a thing, one complies. That Kerry refused and Sharif accepted the need for further discussions tells us that the government believes the authority on this subject lies with the real rulers of Pakistan where security is involved—Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Army chief, calls the shots, not Sharif.

The Sharif administration departs from the general agreement between Washington and Pakistan’s military leadership on a number of security issues. Sharif has suggested his government will pursue negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, the group that has targeted civilians, soldiers, and politicians alike and aims to overthrow the Pakistani government. The Army is not willing to go down this road. Meanwhile, the civilian government’s prosecution of former president Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif in a military coup in 1999, is picking up pace. This week, Musharraf’s lawyer said that his client was likely to be charged in connection with the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. A prominent Pakistan military leader such as Musharraf has never been targeted this way by a civilian government.

So despite the glad-handing, Secretary Kerry did not just fix the relationship with Pakistan. But at least this is preferable to open hostility.

[Secretary Kerry meets Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Kerry’s recent visit to Pakistan; image courtesy Getty]

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  • Corlyss

    You should have stopped at “Not.”

  • bpuharic

    Pakistan is like Texas, but without oil. What makes you think you can argue with religious fanatics?

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