Washington optimistic on Pakistan ties ahead of Nawaz visit

WASHINGTON / NEW YORK: There is an air of “optimism and hope” in Washington for improvement in U.S.-Pakistan relationship, considered key to regional security and stability, ahead of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s official talks with President Barack Obama.

Official statements and American media reports denote a warm tone for Wednesday’s White House meeting between the top political leadership, first such talks session in almost half a decade. “For a variety of reasons, there’s a bit more optimism and hope in the relationship, I think, on both sides than there has been for a while,”a senior State Department official told The Washington Post.

Both sides have expressed similar sentiments on the future of relationship, which ebbed to an unprecedented low point in 2011 with a string of unsavory episodes.

“There were hiccups in 2011 and 2012, but we truly believe things are getting better,” said Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser.
The two countries, though, still have to deal with contentious issues like the Obama administration’s ongoing, if diminished, drone strikes against suspected terrorists on Pakistani territory, allegations of cross-border militancy and concerns about the future of Afghanistan after 2014. Pakistani and
American experts on South Asia say the two sides must build trust as they go forward into a new phase in relationship.
“But neither country wants to return to the roller-coaster relations that touched bottom in 2011, when a U.S. raid in Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden and a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the country’s border with Afghanistan,” the Post remarked.
Islamabad’s support for Afghan reconciliation and availability of its overland routes are considered crucial to a smooth withdrawal of American combat troops from landlocked Afghanistan, as the lingering conflict comes to an end by 2014.
The Post report says compared with Nawaz Shairf’s last visit to Washington in 1999, he is now a much stronger political leader.
“On Sunday, Prime Minister Sharif returns here for an official visit in a far more secure position. He was elected in May in Pakistan’s first-ever transfer of power from one civilian government to another, his party holds a firm parliamentary majority,” in reference to the 1999 coup and currently the military’s moving away from politics.
In order to reflect and encourage the improvement in relations, the Obama administration has moved to speed the release of more than $1 billion in previously approved military and economic assistance as well as promised compensation to the Pakistani military for counterterrorism expenses.
According to the paper, U.S. officials acknowledge that Sharif, who has adopted a clear-cut stand on the drones issue, has sent numerous signals that he is ready to reduce tensions. In late June, they credited his government with helping nudge the Afghan Taliban to Qatar for an attempt to jump-start peace
talks between the insurgent group and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.On Afghanistan, both countries have their own respective concerns. Pakistan worries about whether postwar Afghanistan will be stable and well-financed enough to prosper.
If security tops the Obama administration’s agenda, Pakistan’s economy tops Sharif’s, U.S. official say.
Meanwhile, The New York Times observed in a report that the White House has set a warm tone for the Obama-Sharif session, officially stating that the meeting would highlight the “resilience of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship” and further cooperation on trade and economic development, regional stability and the fight against extremism.
A report in the paper cited recognition that relations have been gradually improving since 2011 events.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, defended the U.S. assistance for Pakistan, saying renewed aid was “part of a long process of restarting security assistance cooperation after implementation was slowed during the bilateral challenges of 2011 and 2012.”
“U.S. security assistance continues to build the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities of Pakistan’s security forces, which is critical to countering violence in the western border regions,” Ms. Harf told the paper in an email.
The spokeswoman added that civilian aid had “continued uninterrupted.” Civilian aid, she stressed, had “delivered real results on the issues most important to Prime Minister Sharif and all Pakistanis: energy, education, and economic growth.”