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U.S. and Pakistan Try to Mend Frayed Ties

WASHINGTON, Aug 2 2013 (IPS) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on an official trip to Pakistan, announced Thursday that high-level policy discussions will begin anew between Washington and Islamabad.

“Today, very quickly, we were able to agree to a resumption of the strategic dialogue to foster a deeper, broader and more comprehensive partnership between our countries,” Kerry said, speaking to the press in Islamabad.

“The continuation of drone operations, now that the Pakistani government has made it clear in every possible way that it wants them to stop, is a very serious irritant to U.S.-Pakistani relations.” -- South Asia expert Bruce Riedel

Such dialogue between Washington and Islamabad had been suspended for almost two years following a series of U.S. actions in 2011 which killed people inside Pakistan and infuriated the public there.

“This is a modest but important step in taking this important relationship to a healthier place than where it has been in the last several years,” Bruce Riedel, who has worked as a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East for the last four U.S. presidents, told IPS.

October 2011 was the last time a visit was made by a U.S. secretary of state to the strategically important nation, which is possessed of a growing stockpile of nuclear weaponry and which neighbours a land where the U.S. is still leading a war.

The major actions which irked Islamabad in 2011 included the killing of two Pakistani men by CIA asset Raymond Davis in Lahore, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. soldiers in Abbottabad, and the strafing to death of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. planes along the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Two years later, however, the situation has evolved, Touqir Hussain, a member of the South Asian Studies faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told IPS.

“Something like this had to happen,” says Hussain. “The relationship had been going too far into negative territory.”

Husssain, who calls the resumption of U.S.-Pakistani discussions a “reset” in the relationship between the two countries, stresses the importance of the U.S. war for the sudden resumption of dialogue. He says that the U.S. recognises the importance of a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan, and that it will be better off in that task if working with a cooperative Islamabad.

“The U.S. realises the important role that a stable Pakistan can play for them, especially in Afghanistan,” he told IPS.

The drone issue

The biggest bone of contention for Pakistan in its relationship with the U.S. is the latter’s continued policy of carrying out drone strikes in its tribal regions.

“The continuation of drone operations, now that the Pakistani government has made it clear in every possible way that it wants them to stop, is a very serious irritant to U.S.-Pakistani relations, and there’s no getting around that,” says Riedel, who is currently a senior fellow at Brookings, a think tank here.

The attacks are designed to eliminate those suspected as militants, but reports say they also cause many civilian deaths.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Kerry made a statement seemingly intended to assuage concern over this issue.

“I think the programme will end, as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” he told the cameras, adding that he hoped the end would come “very soon”.

In a State Department press conference which followed that speech, however, spokeswoman Marie Harf qualified that statement, saying there was no exact timeline, and that it would depend on “the situation on the ground”.

Sharif, who assumed leadership in June, has supported more lenient counter-terrorism policies, including dialogue with the groups responsible for acts of violence against the Pakistani state. His government has made it clear that it wants a halt to all drone strikes.

Hussain, for one, doubts the lengths Islamabad is willing to go to see that desire realised.

“The U.S. and Pakistan will continue to have a conflict of view on this issue, but they are not going to let everything else come to a standstill because of it,” Hussain told IPS.

“Pakistan will continue to make noises and the U.S. will continue to carry out drone attacks,” he added, referring to the complaints made by Pakistani officials about the U.S. strikes.

While Kerry praised the unprecedented success of the election of Sharif, calling it an “historic transition”, he also took the opportunity while speaking in Islamabad to warn of the dangers of not combating extremism.

“The choice for Pakistan is clear: Will the forces of violent extremism be allowed to grow more dominant, eventually overpowering the moderate majority?” Kerry asked.

While the U.S. is once again on speaking terms with Pakistan at the highest level, it has a long way to go to regain the sympathy of the Pakistani public opinion.

Research indicates that over 70 percent of Pakistanis hold an unfavourable opinion of the U.S.

“Pakistani public opinion remains harshly anti-American and harshly anti-drones, and I don’t think anything Secretary Kerry has said is going to change that,” Riedel tells IPS.

Further, there is a “fundamental divide”, the Brookings scholar says, between the interests of Washington and those of Islamabad.

“The U.S. is at war with the Afghan Taliban, while Pakistan is supporting it,” he notes.

He further points out that, even when talks were under way before the problems in 2011, they never really produced much. Therefore he is sceptical about how much will come out of this rejuvenated relationship.

“While it is a modest step in the right direction, I don’t think people should have exaggerated expectations.”

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