Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif will hold talks with President Barack Obama next week on wide-ranging issues during the first bilateral visit by a Pakistani leader to Washington in almost five years.
In addition to discussing ways to strengthen bilateral trade and economic cooperation, the two sides will avail the opportunity to deliberate on regional peace and security issues as the White House looks forward to listening to the views of the new Pakistani government. The October 23 meeting at the White House takes place as Washington and Islamabad expect a new phase in their relationship, when the U.S. forces draw down from neighboring Afghanistan after more than 12 years of war on Pakistan’s western border.
During the visit, Prime Minister Sharif will also interact with key senior U.S. Administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Congressional leaders on the Capitol Hill.
“Though the Secretary is traveling early next week, he will also be meeting with Prime Minister Sharif and his delegation on Sunday prior to his departure,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday, signifying importance Washington attaches to discussions with the Pakistani leadership.
Over much of the past decade since 9/11, Afghan war-related security issues overshadowed the broad range of cooperative ties between Pakistan and the United States but U.S. Special Envoy James Dobbins recently underscored the importance of re-focusing on tremendous potential of the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship, independent of the Afghan war, which officially ends by 2014.
“The impending coalition exit from Afghanistan is a short-term issue. A stable and prosperous Pakistan is what will matter most for the long run,” Shuja Nawaz, who heads the South Asian Center at Washington’s Atlantic Council, wrote in the Foreign Policy magazine on the eve of the visit.
Prime Minister Sharif is expected to call for expansion in trade and economic areas and making such cooperation the defining foundation for an enduring relationship in view of the repeated ups and downs in the ties in the past decades.
According to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who was in Washington last week for World Bank-IMF meetings, the prime minister believes in fostering long-term relations on the basis of aid, and not aid.
Ahead of the visit, the United States has released an outstanding amount of $322 million as reimbursement from the Coalition Support Funds.
Pakistan-India relations may also figure during the meeting. Prime Minister Sharif is also expected to express Pakistan’s views in the regional security perspective, particularly in view of 2014 Afghan transition and implications of the developments in the neighboring country for Pakistan.
Announcing the visit recently, the White House said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s “visit will highlight the importance and resilience of the US- Pakistan relationship and provide an opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism.”
“The President looks forward to discussions with Prime Minister Sharif on ways we can advance our shared interest of a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan,” the statement added.
Prime Minister Sharif – whose government is seen as much stronger in Washington than the former coalition Pakistani administration due to his party’s convincing parliamentary majority – is expected to share his vision for peace and stability in the region and his government’s policy on ways to comprehensively address the menace of violent extremism. At the same time, he is expected to take up the issue of controversial drone strikes the U.S. carries out against suspected militants hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.
The Pakistani leader will deliver a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, and also address members of U.S.-Pakistan Business Council to highlight the vast investment prospects in energy and other fields for American entrepreneurs.
Last year, the U.S.-Pakistan trade stood at more than $ five billion and the United States has traditionally been one of the largest investors in Pakistan.
American experts say both countries need each other in the foreseeable future, citing Pakistan’s importance in the region and the fact that U.S.-Pakistan cooperation has been helpful in the fight against al-Qaeda-linked militants over the last decade. The relationship, however, hit a low point in 2011 following a spate of events including the U.S. special forces’ unilateral Abbottabad operation.
In a book released last week, Daniel Markey, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in favor of close cooperation between the United States and Pakistan on issues of common concern towards regional security and stability of the key South Asian country.
In the immediate context, the United States relies on Pakistan’s support and availability of its overland routes for a smooth drawdown of its forces from landlocked Afghanistan in 2014. Washington has also been appreciative of Pakistan’s role in support of Afghan reconciliation involving the Taliban.
On the other hand, Islamabad seeks greater access to the U.S. market and wants American investment inflows into its energy sector to spur efforts to overcome crippling power shortages. The U.S. assistance has helped enhance Pakistan’s power production capacity but Islamabad is also looking for substantive international investments in power and infrastructure projects.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will also meet with members of Pakistani-American community and inform them about the government’s development agenda as well as its efforts to steer the country out of energy crisis.