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WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now on his way back after a four-day stay in the US capital but in the final analysis his visit was nothing more than the reiteration of already stated positions and pledges of support to work closely on security, economic and strategic issues, domestically and in the region.
But there were no concrete results nor was a breakthrough expected, nor did one came out of the Oval Office as both leaders talked to the small number of mediamen present. However, some sensitive issues were raised by both sides, including the drones issue and the release of CIA helper Dr Shakil Afridi and the incarcerated Dr Aafia Siddiqi. Obama also raised the issue of cross-border raids, the role of the Jamaatud Dawaa and theMumbai attacks.
Obama and Sharif both talked in very cordial terms after their meeting at the Oval Office but Sharif chose to read from a text, written previously. So he was careful not to say anything which could be misinterpreted.
Sharif, however, said Pakistan will have to put its own house in order first and determine its course.He said “we have told Obama we have to talk to the Taliban and we have taken a conscious decision and you should cooperate with us”.
The visit gave both sides a chance to discuss in a private setting the developing situation in Afghanistan, the issues involved in the US-Nato withdrawal in 2014, the role of India and other regional powers and the key part Pakistan was expected to play once the US troops leave Afghanistan.
Even though a dramatic breakthrough may not be immediately visible, an understanding on these key issues may also be seen as a positive outcome of the visit but it was not clear how deep the understanding, if any, had been reached.
The resumption of the stalled Strategic Dialogue between the two sides could also show that both sides had agreed to take the process forward.Although no stranger to the Washington scene, Sharif came this time to see President
Obama, who was not on the scene when he was last here in his official capacity as PM on July 4, 1999, seeking an Independence Day meeting with the then President Clinton to avert a disaster over the Kargil fiasco.
So enthralled was Sharif with the Clinton family then, and is still so, that he did not even remember that today he had been invited by President Obama and not President Clinton. Yet he told the Pakistani community he was here on the invitation of Mr Clinton, an error everyone waited for him to correct in his speech, but he did not even register his mistake and never did so. Some diplomats said he made the same error in a private meeting as well.
His interactions with the rest of the think tanks of DC, the usual crowd of intellectuals and table/laptop experts, were again strictly controlled so that no one put him in an embarrassing spot — no questions from the audience, no mingling with the crowds, no session at all with even the media at least until the White House meeting.
But since Sharif has come back into power after 14 years with a majority in a complex geo-political and strategic situation, everyone in the US wanted to see him privately and they did.
His dilemma was that he was not ready for the detailed nitty-gritty of talks with any of these leaders on trade, investment, energy, education, science and technology or even security issues as he had no back-up teams to do the homework except the one-man squad of Ishaq Dar. His speeches, written by a small core team of officials, had nothing exciting in them. An intriguing presence was that of Salman Shahbaz, the son of Shahbaz Sharif, who was also taken to the White House.
No member of this core group of four, Sartaj Aziz, Ishaq Dar, Tariq Fatemi and Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, was allowed to talk publicly or privately to the media except for one briefing by Jilani which had nothing except the diplomacy that foreign office bureaucrats are good at. “Frank and candid”, “free exchanges” etc were used but no detail of any discussion was released. Even on the key issue of the Pak-Iran gas pipeline, all Secretary Jilani had to say was: “It was discussed and I cannot talk any more about it, lets leave it there.”
So much distrust or lack of expertise was visible that Sharif invited himself to at least two key meetings where he should never have been present for protocol reasons. He was to meet the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, which was fine as it would have been sympathetic and soft on him, being dominated by Democrats, but he should not have opened himself to the House Committee, a Republican-controlled committee that virtually grilled him on several issues.
The Senate Committee meeting, however, did not take place.Then a rumour caught everyone by surprise that Sharif had quietly slipped into the White House to meet National Security Adviser Dr Susan Rice on the second day of his visit, after meeting her at John Kerry’s dinner the earlier evening. No official was able to explain why the rumour started but a meeting did take place at the White House with Dr Rice in which Tariq Fatemi and probably Sartaj Aziz were present. Maybe Ishaq Dar was also there but no one confirmed the presence of the PM.
The US visit was basically aimed to address and satisfy the audience back home in Pakistan as it was stressed again and again that the drone issue would be raised, since that has now become the key to starting talks with the Taliban. There was no optimism in the small Pakistani camp that raising the issue would be enough for the TTP to begin the dialogue process.
Everyone knows what the US side has been saying on this issue and what Obama would say when the issue would be raised at the Oval House. It was only a matter of stating their official and public positions, without any serious hope that any breakthrough was possible.
But at some level, there was a feeling in the US side that Pakistan, and specially the Nawaz government, may have to be given some space to carry out an exercise in holding a dialogue with the extremists and if that failed, assurances may be given to support a firm military operation.
Officially, the White House released a statement before the meeting, which said: “The president will welcome Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan to the White House. The vice president will attend. The meeting will highlight the importance and resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship and provide an opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism.”
The term added at the end “countering violent extremism” could have provided Sharif the reason to raise the drone issue but the stock response of the US side is that Pakistan should establish its writ over the areas where US enemies hide and until that is done, on actionable intelligence about high value targets drones would be used.
The US side, and officials have not been speaking in detail about the visit, has been gathering impressions in the private sessions about the Sharif position on how he will handle the US, Nato withdrawal and more importantly whether he would be in a position to enforce his views on the Pakistan Army, if they were in conflict with the US positions or wishes of the political government.
That was the key assessment that US officials needed to make from the interactions with Sharif as no senior Pakistan Army officer was present in these meetings.
There was some speculation that the replacement of General Kayani may have been raised by the US side in totally private conversations, some one-on-one, but obviously no one was prepared to say it was discussed by anyone at any level. Secretary Jilani said so, dismissing a question almost derisively at his only briefing.
Even with Vice President Joe Biden the discussion was all couched in diplomatic jargon. A press release after the Wednesday morning breakfast meeting said: “Both leaders discussed issues of mutual interest in the bilateral relationship as well as cooperation on issues of regional peace and stability. Both the leaders reaffirmed their keenness to work together to maintain the positive trajectory in the bilateral relations and identified the revived Strategic Dialogue process as the ideal vehicle to further strengthen a people-centric, broad based and mutually beneficial relationship. They emphasised the need to focus on promoting cooperation in trade and investment, energy, education, science and technology sectors and strengthening people to people contacts to realise the true potential of the relationship.
“Vice President Biden appreciated Pakistan’s contribution and sacrifices in fighting the scourge of terrorism. He praised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s leadership in promoting peace and stability in the region and also acknowledged Pakistan’s useful and important role in facilitating peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. Both leaders agreed on the need to further strengthen coordination and cooperation among Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan to ensure success of the reconciliation process.”
All these high-sounding words need to be decoded by experts but most know what they mean, basically re-stating already known positions and adding nothing more.
One more purely media related issue that became evident during the visit was the new policy not to sponsor any media group or person to accompany the PM. Some media persons came on their own but this new policy has also left the media to gather half-baked, sometimes wrong or planted, stories on its own, as nothing officially was conveyed except brief two to three para releases.
This led to every reporter looking for any story, even one about stale food served by the Pakistan embassy at the media centre. Better media handling in terms of background information and issues of substance is needed and this is not like asking for the moon.