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Press review: Lukewarm response to "strategic dialogue" between US and Pakistan

March 26, 2010

The relationship with the US is of central importance for Pakistan; all of the country’s important newspapers published commentaries on the "strategic dialogue" that took place this week in Washington.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood QureshiImage: AP

The relationship with the US is of central importance for Pakistan; accordingly all of the country’s important newspapers published commentaries on the "strategic dialogue" that took place between the two countries this week in Washington.

The News wrote that "the results at first glance appear meager: a few energy projects and a fast track to some military hardware. Also, an apparent firm no to nuclear power plants, and hands off on an American role in promoting India-Pakistan dialogue." However, the paper acknowledged that the talks had been conducted much more systematically than previous such interactions.

There is a plethora of openly anti-American voices in the Pakistani press. The conservative daily The Nation is among them and wrote the talks off from the start, accusing the Pakistani politicians of subservience. It finished its editorial thus: "But then perhaps one is expecting too much from a government that comprises individuals with many vested interests in the US, to think that they will put the Pakistani people before US interests."

There is no more open enthusiasm left in Pakistan for the United States, which leaves basically two positions. Some, like the former politician Shafqat Mehmood in The News, argue pragmatically: "Both Pakistan and the US need each other," he wrote. "The game is to leverage advantages and play on the vulnerabilities to gain the maximum. There are no friends among nations, just a coming together of mutual interests. There seems to be recognition on both sides that such congruence is possible."

On the other hand there are the skeptics, such as parliamentarian Ayaz Amir, who warned (in the same newspaper, incidentally) that "we have been here before, travelled down this route many times, our obsessive insecurity driving us time and again into American arms, each time to be left high and dry when the initial enthusiasm, or necessity, had passed. But we never seem to learn and each time begin our quest for the holy grail - of permanence in our American connection - as if there were never any heartbreaks before."

With Foreign Minister Qureshi, Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani represented Pakistan in Washington. The opinion about this prominence of the army in US-Pakistan relations is divided. Shafqat Mehmood in The News took a pragmatic view again: "The presence of Gen Kayani from the Pakistani side was important. This was reflected in the meetings he had prior to the talks, which prepared the ground for a meaningful military cooperation. It may not correspond to pristine notions of democracy, but the military is the most powerful institution in Pakistan."

However, most commentators were critical. Ayaz Amir noted in The News that "the wish-list Pakistan has carried to Washington has Kayani's thumbprint all over it. It has not been lost on anyone that in the driving seat as far as our delegation is concerned sits not the foreign minister or anyone else but him. It would also not have been lost on anyone that the brief prepared by our side for the talks was put together not in the prime minister's office or anywhere else but in General Headquarters, with key federal secretaries in attendance and Kayani, not the prime minister, presiding."

Former diplomat Zafar Hilaly wrote in the Daily Times that "confusion and the feeling among the civilians that, in the final analysis, their view counts for little when opposed by the military has gradually diminished the incentive to develop their own capacities. Civilian experts of international relations are ignored when it comes to policy formulation."

The commentators were united in their analysis that Pakistan needed to find its own position first, and many called for a less security-dominated approach to Afghanistan, for example.

Ayaz Amir argues Pakistan, with its economy in dire straits, should focus on securing financial aid from the United States. Wanting to manage things in Afghanistan, he wrote, "may be a worthy ambition. But it is poor compensation for mismanaging Pakistan."

Political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa in Dawn called for Pakistan to have a "strategic dialogue" inside the country. She was present in Washington herself for the talks and wrote that "there was definitely a lot of positive energy and one could have a sense of the US turning the page. But the million-dollar question is whether Pakistan is ready to do the same. Let’s say that we manage to convince the US to give us a role in Afghanistan where we could ensure our larger strategic interests. Would we then be willing to shut down the jihad machine?"

She came up with a concrete suggestion for Pakistan: "While it must aim for gaining a foothold in Afghanistan to secure its position, a policy to force other neighbors out would prove counter-productive. It would help if Islamabad combined the acquisition of a role in Afghanistan with multilateral assurances that India or any other country would not threaten its core interests."

Author: Thomas Baerthlein

Editor: Anne Thomas