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A 'futile' visit

Shamil ShamsNovember 19, 2015

When Pakistani leaders meet US officials, they express strong commitment to fighting Islamic extremism. Experts say it is usually a hollow exercise, and the Pakistani army chief's five-day US visit is a perfect example.

An undated handout picture released by the Pakistani military Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on 27 November 2013 shows Lt. General Raheel Sharif newly appointed army chief to succeed General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani (Photo: EPA/ISPR / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Pakistan's military chief, Raheel Sharif, who is touted by much of the Pakistani media as the "savior" of the Islamic country, is wrapping up his five-day visit to the United States. The military's supporters, including a number of journalists and analysts, claim Sharif's US trip is far more significant in terms of strategic and defense ties than Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Washington in October.

Their claim is not entirely wrong: General Sharif (main picture) holds the real power in Pakistan, whereas PM Sharif, despite being the constitutional head of the government, has almost no say in matters related to foreign policy and defense.

The dichotomy of power in Pakistan has always put the US in a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to strengthen civilian democracy in the country, on the other, it knows it has to deal with the powerful Pakistani army, if it wants to get the work done.

For Washington, there are too many things on the table regarding Islamabad: peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan; Pakistan's rapidly expanding nuclear stockpile, its continued support of Islamic militants in the region; and the Islamic nation's deteriorating ties with neighboring India.

General Raheel Sharif (L) meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan (Photo: PID)
General Sharif's (left) US visit comes just less than a month after PM Nawaz Sharif met with President Obama at the White HouseImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

The Obama administration, however, has been stricter with the Pakistani military than previous US governments have. This is why PM Sharif's visit not only preceded General Sharif's tour, but also why his arrival in Washington was given far more importance in comparison to General Sharif's low-key trip. Some reports even suggest that General Sharif went to the US on his own request.

"COAS Gen Raheel Sharif is travelling to Washington D.C. of his own volition and DoD (Department of Defense) officials are meeting (him) at his request," a US defense official told the media on November 12.

Islamabad-based journalist Abdul Agha says General Sharif should work on tackling and eradicating Islamist extremism in his country rather than wasting time in the US on a "futile trip."

"His boss, PM Sharif, must have told him (Raheel Sharif) about the US demands. Then why did the general feel the need to go to Washington?" Agha asked.

History of mistrust

Regardless of whether General Sharif's US visit was unsolicited or not, he has met with a number of high-ranking US officials in the past four days. On November 19, he held talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry and is expected to meet Vice-President Joe Biden before heading to Brazil and Ivory Coast.

"Secretary Kerry met with Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif to follow up on some of the security-related conversations that he had with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October," a State Department spokesperson told reporters.

"General Sharif's consultations in Washington are part of our regular, ongoing bilateral discussions with a broad range of Pakistani officials, and we appreciate the productive discussions we had regarding our bilateral defense and security relationship," the spokesperson added, without specifying issues that were discussed during the meeting.

The US is wary of Islamabad's reluctance to go after the militant Haqqani Network in the North Waziristan region close to the Afghan border. Some US officials believe the Pakistani army continues to back the Taliban to destabilize President Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul.

But experts say the Obama administration is aware that it is unlikely that Raheel Sharif will address US concerns when he returns home. "The US knows the situation. But nothing will change on the ground as the Pakistani army will not give up its decades-old regional policies," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher, told DW.

However, Ali K. Chishti, a security analyst in Karachi, says the assumption that Washington doesn't have faith in Pakistan's commitment to peace in Afghanistan is misplaced. "The US and Pakistan have been on the same page on this issue ever since the Qatar talks were initiated during President Hamid Karzai's tenure."

Pakistan's nuclear safety

Washington has also been worried about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration, therefore, wants to ensure better security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and limit the numbers of nuclear weapons.

A report by two US think tanks stated that Pakistan could have the world's third-largest nuclear stockpile within a decade. Pakistan has a history of nuclear proliferation, and despite public statements by US officials that the Islamic country's nuclear weapons are safe, there are growing fears that they could fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists.

"The Pakistani nukes have been on the US watch list ever since former President Pervez Musharaff set up a nuclear command and control authority in the country and introduced safeguards. Since then, Washington hasn't shown any serious concern," Chishti said.

"The US is only worried about smaller nuclear warheads and the speed of its production," he added.

Most analysts are of the view that General Sharif won't concede to the US on this issue either.

The military's obsession with Kashmir

Another major issue during General Sharif's talks with US officials was the increased tension between Pakistan and India. There have been border skirmishes between the two countries in the recent months, and their leaders have ratcheted up war rhetoric substantially.

A Pakistan-made Shaheen missile capable of carrying nuclear heads, front, is displayed at a defense exhibition on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 in Karachi, Pakistan (AP Photo/Mohammad Ali)
The US is worried about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weaponsImage: picture-alliance/AP

The situation is worrisome for the US, which wants Islamabad to focus more on fighting home-grown Islamists rather than on scaling up tensions with New Delhi.

Security analyst Chishti believes General Sharif was justified in raising the issue with the US military leadership because Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not willing to cooperate with the Pakistani leadership.

But Arif Jamal, a US-based scholar on Islamic extremism, says the tensions are largely because of Pakistan's anti-India policies and support for jihadists. "The US has always pressed Pakistan to abandon the use of jihadists as an instrument of foreign policy. It needs to press Islamabad even harder," he told DW.

It is likely that US military officials pressed General Sharif "harder" this time. But will it be enough to pressure Pakistan to change its policies? Experts say this is highly unlikely.