Kerry in Pakistan Seeking: A Fresh Start For US-Pak?

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John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Pakistan today seeking improved relations with a nuclear-armed state crucial to the Obama administration’s plans to withdraw troops from neighboring Afghanistan.

Kerry’s visit is the first by a top U.S. official since Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister in May and the first by a secretary of state in two years. The top U.S. diplomat will emphasize cooperation on economic development, the fight against terrorism, regional stability and nuclear security, U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified in advance of the talks, told reporters traveling with him.

The visit come at a rare moment when there’s no crisis in a relationship that has been marked by tensions over U.S. drone strikes and disputes about whether Pakistan is doing enough to combat terrorist groups that operate in the country and cross over into Afghanistan.

“One has to keep expectations low for any dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship,” Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “We have been in a very deep hole for a long time. At end of the day, we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them. That’s true on both sides.”

Kerry will have more than 12 hours of meetings tomorrow with Sharif and top civilian and military leaders. He also will make a stop in London for meetings en route back to Washington, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Bin Laden

Relations remain delicate after a tumultuous 2011, when a U.S. raid killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was living in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and two dozen Pakistanis were killed accidentally in a U.S. airstrike. Pakistan closed resupply routes for American forces in Afghanistan for more than six months.

The U.S. has provided Pakistan with $26 billion “in direct, overt U.S. aid and military reimbursements” since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service, support that continued amid mutual distrust over each country’s motives in the war on terrorism.

Kerry’s visit was kept secret until his arrival because of the daily terrorism threats in Pakistan. It comes days after a pair of market bombings that killed scores of civilians, a fatal ambush on Pakistani border guards and a jailbreak by militants that freed 250 prisoners.

India Competition

The string of attacks underscores the two sides’ differences over terrorism and how to respond.

“Most Pakistani leaders still see their national interest in terms of competition with India and resolving the Kashmir dispute,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said in an interview yesterday, referring to the disputed territory claimed by both Pakistan and India.

“The jailbreak, the attack on the police station — these should be top reasons for concern,” said Haqqani, a professor at Boston University. “But fighting terrorism is somehow not Pakistan’s priority.”

U.S. drone strikes on suspected militants were tacitly accepted by Pakistan’s leaders until the public turned against them as a violation of sovereignty and a cause of civilian casualties.

The drone dispute has undercut goodwill the U.S. sought through a $7.5 billion, five-year commitment to economic assistance, a program sponsored by Kerry when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Afghanistan Exit

A smooth U.S. exit from Afghanistan will depend on Pakistan’s cooperation in the logistical pullout, as well as its support for Afghan peace talks and willingness to stop aiding extremists in Afghanistan.

“Pakistani military and intelligence services still don’t want to put aside the idea of somehow running the Afghan government,” said Haqqani, author of the forthcoming book “Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States and the History of an Epic Misunderstanding.” “They have not yet accepted that jihadism is a fundamental threat to Pakistan as a modern state.”

Inderfurth said he would “strongly advise” Kerry not to repeat what other high-level visitors have done in demanding that Pakistan do more on counterterrorism.

“They immediately have a reflexive reaction against that,” he said, advocating a “middle-ground” approach.

Sharif’s Priorities

A U.S. administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment, said the U.S. is encouraged by Sharif’s campaign rhetoric listing as priorities the economy, energy and domestic extremism.

While Sharif took office pledging to halt U.S. drone strikes, he was elected with a perceived mandate and leverage to act against homegrown terrorism, another U.S. official in Pakistan said.

Sherry Rehman, who returned to Islamabad after serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington until May, said that the view among some in the U.S. military and intelligence agencies that Pakistan is abetting cross-border proxies is outdated.

“Pakistan has moved beyond power-brokering in Afghanistan at least five years ago, and seeks to support any genuine Afghan peace process,” she said in an interview.

Source: Bloomberg

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