The Obama administration should look to consolidate bilateral relations during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit this week.
Pakistan is finally making progress in confronting the societal ills that have made it such an unpredictable international actor, and is moving towards becoming a pluralistic democracy with a growing economy and lower levels of violence, writes Arif Rafiq for The National Interest. That progress is one reason why the U.S. should pursue its relationship with Pakistan.
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Rocky relationship looks to be on the up
Relations between the two countries have fluctuated over the past few decades, and Sharif has not always been seen as an ally of the United States. Even since he came back to power for the third time in 2013, the situation has been unstable, with most problems arising due to the war on terror.
U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory caused relations to worsen due to civilian and military casualties, but a complete deterioration was successfully avoided. Now that relations have grown warmer once again, the situation in Pakistan is also improving.
Pakistani democracy has proved resilient even in the face of continued military influence, and it appears likely that another democratically elected government will enter office in 2018. Sharif himself is the most popular politician in the country.
Positive indications from within Pakistan
Economically speaking, Pakistan is on the up. One encouraging sign is the fact that China is investing heavily in the country, including in a $46 billion economic corridor. GDP growth iis slow but positive, while the domestic consumer market is going from strength to strength.
One reason for the rosier outlook is the improved security situation, with the threat of terrorist attacks vastly reduced. Civilian deaths from terror attacks are at the lowest level for 9 years, and there are nationwide initiatives to crack down on sectarian violence.
Given these positive indications, it is time for the U.S. to work together with Pakistan to improve regional issues. One pressing problem is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and Obama and Sharif need to work out how to bring the Afghan Taliban into negotiations.
Another point of discussion is the threat of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. It is thought that the U.S. will propose a deal under which Pakistan halts its nuclear expansion in exchange for acceptance into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Defusing tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi is a difficult task, but Sharif has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with his counterpart Narendra Modi. The Pakistani PM proposed a peace initiative with New Delhi last month, and he appears to have the support of the Pakistani Army.
Bilateral cooperation on the agenda
Future U.S. aid payments to Pakistan may also be on the agenda. The U.S. reimburses Pakistan for its support in the war on terror with Coalition Support Funds, the continuation of which is necessary for stability along the border with Afghanistan. 40% of the $7.5 billion aid package agreed under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act also still needs to be spent.
Pakistan needs trade more than aid, and the U.S. should attempt to improve market access for Pakistani products to reduce the potential effects of the TPP trade agreement. Rafiq argues that Pakistan should also be brought closer to the U.S. through its inclusion in multilateral organizations.
One viable institution is the Nuclear Suppliers Group, membership of which could make Islamabad more constructive in global affairs. After massive floods in 2010 and a heatwave this summer, Pakistan has seen first hand the effects of climate change. As a result, Washington may find a useful ally in its attempts to combat global warming.
Pakistan insulating itself from regional instability
Pakistan is bucking regional trends at a time when the Muslim world is struggling with authoritarian governments and civil violence. From Iraq to Bangladesh, various groups are pushing their own violent agendas to the detriment of regional prosperity.
Under Sharif, Pakistan looks to be on its way to becoming a trustworthy regional power, and could enter into a productive relationship with the U.S. as Washington struggles to maintain influence in the region. Sharif’s visit to Washington presents a perfect opportunity for the two nations to engage in meaningful initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for Pakistanis that have suffered from terrorism, bad governance and sluggish economic growth over the last decade.
Pakistan has successfully demonstrated a newly pragmatic foreign policy, engaging in closer relationships with China and Russia. This pivot shows an appreciation of an increasingly multipolar world, and the U.S. would do well to recognize that it is far from the only international power interested in cooperating with Pakistan.