Weighing in on the Pak-US Strategic Dialogue

After a three-year hiatus, Pakistan and the United States resumed their stalled ministerial-level Strategic Dialogue in Washington this January. Launched in 2010, the Dialogue was left in the cold after a tailspin in relations in 2011. In August 2013 both sides announced they would resume discussions on security, economic cooperation and other drivers of the bilateral relationship.

In light of the drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan, regional stability dominated the weeklong agenda in Washington. Advisor to the Prime Minister on National Security Sartaj Aziz led the Pakistan delegation, while the US delegation was led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Over the course of the discussions, the US delegation went to lengths to maintain that the Pak-US relationship amounted to more than unfolding events in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Jinnah Institute turned to a leading panel of Pakistani policy experts for their analysis of the Dialogue, and to ask if the resumption in ministerial-level talks marked a renewed vigour in Pak-US relations.


Ambassador Riaz Mohammad Khan, former Foreign Secretary, suggested that the revival of the Pak-US strategic dialogue carried significance because it restored a certain normalcy to bilateral relations, while attempting to nudge cooperation in venues beyond Afghanistan and counter-terrorism. However, Amb. Khan cautioned that the nomenclature or the revival did not indicate a change in the sentiment of the relationship that continued to be dominated by concerns instead of promise. The US maintained a strategic dialogue with many countries; and had offered it to Pakistan in March 2006 when President Bush arrived in Islamabad following a much-heralded visit to New Delhi. The stated intent was to build long-term broad based cooperation in energy, finance, education, science and technology and agriculture. The Dialogue languished until 2010 when it redefined its agenda to include consultations on security, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and defense. The agenda thus reflected the character of bilateral relations that was largely determined by familiar security concerns and dynamics of the Afghan situation instead of a common desire to expand economic, technological or people-to-people interaction. Amb. Khan concluded by noting that the current round should essentially help security-related confidence building with some dividend expected in the energy sector as well.


Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council, was of the opinion that given the dismal state of the Pak-US relationship after 2011, the only trajectory worth pursuing was up. This was the rationale behind Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Islamabad last August, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington in November, and now last week’s meetings led by Sartaj Aziz and John Kerry. But it was unclear if a sustainable path had been set in this fraught and still vulnerable relationship. While the desire was there, it remained to be seen if reality would supplant the rhetoric of ‘partnership’ – Washington’s word du jour. Much would depend on how soon and well Pakistan tackled its internal economic and political challenges, especially the militancy and insurgency that was likely to outlast the end of kinetic operations in Afghanistan by Coalition Forces. The Pak-US relationship was likely to remain a transactional one through 2014, as the US sought Pakistan’s help to leave Afghanistan in an orderly manner. Meanwhile, Pakistan needed to leverage US help in maintaining access to international financial assistance from the Bretton Woods organisations and the Asian Development Bank, among others. Mr. Nawaz emphasized that Pakistan also needed to look beyond 2014: if Pakistan performed well domestically and improved ties with its neighbors, US assistance and engagement would be easier to obtain. Otherwise, Pakistan could be headed for another slide in this roller coaster relationship.


Ambassador Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, Pakistan’s former envoy to the United Nations, argued that the strategic dialogue was an advance on the recent tense relations between Islamabad and Washington. However, the bilateral relationship was stuck in a rut and accordingly required concrete measures on issues discussed at the last summit encounter before any qualitative improvement could be claimed. Amb. Qazi maintained that the US administration did not believe that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has asserted his leadership sufficiently to make an impact on issues of interest to the US. The US was headed for mid-term elections this year, after which President Obama could become a lame duck, especially on foreign policy issues. This would especially be the case in the unlikely event he lost the Senate. He would then be spurned by his own party as it prepared for the 2016 Presidential elections. Afghanistan, Iran, Syria would grab most of the attention that a besieged and outgoing President would be likely to devote to the region for the rest of his term. Pakistan’s items of interest regarding drones, monies owed, India, Kashmir, and access to the US market would have to wait. The US would still depend on Pakistan for a dialogue with the Taliban, which could provide Islamabad with some leverage. However, if Pakistan trapped itself in a dialogue with the TTP without a kinetic alternative, Islamabad might just succeed in confirming the US administration’s suspicion of a ‘no-can-do’ government in Pakistan. Amb. Qazi maintained that there was already a considerable range of bilateral activity and high-level exchanges, but observed that not much was likely in the way of a breakthrough or headline-grabbing developments.

Khurram Husain

Khurram Husain, Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, suggested that the Strategic Dialogue between the governments of the United States and Pakistan was better seen as two separate strategic monologues. He maintained that while it would be unfair to say that the previous two strategic dialogues had accomplished little, it was also easy to overstate the contribution that American bilateral aid had made to Pakistan’s search for stability. This was mostly because the United States viewed this stability in long-term measures, such as through programs designed to improve efficiencies and recoveries in the power sector, whereas the government of Pakistan was looking for more help in short-term measures, particularly in boosting reserves and helping bridge the fiscal deficit. This was why Pakistan asked for ‘aid not trade,’ since preferential aid access was more likely to put a smile on the faces of exporters – a key PML-N constituency. Foreign exchange support was also a priority, and the CSF mechanism was fast evolving into a surrogate aid pipeline for this purpose. The United States, for its part, preferred to channel funds into projects that fulfilled requirements placed by Congress on the disbursement of funds. As each party sought to please their respective constituencies, and understood the meaning of the word ‘strategic’ differently, they largely ended up talking past each other, with no strategic objectives being fulfilled.


Author and DAWN columnist Rafia Zakaria, described the current Strategic Dialogue as another episode in the saga of continued talks and ineffectual outcomes. On the Pakistani side, the focus on strategic response to the Taliban and other extremist groups continued to add to the perception that these groups were a rural enemy in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, even though recent attacks in Karachi showed that this was no longer the case. On the US side, meanwhile, the focus was similarly preoccupied with providing a positive narrative for the 2014 Afghan drawdown and placing all the burden of countering extremism on the use of unmanned drones. Ms. Zakaria was of the opinion that the weight of these self-serving motives on either side made actual progress on the ground unlikely, if not impossible.

(The views in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2014)