For better or for worse, the Pakistan-US relationship bestowed near-celebrity status on Pakistani officials for nearly a decade. Government officials and diplomats found themselves speaking before standing-room only audiences and the bright lights of American television studios. When Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Washington as Foreign Minister in 2009, he too found himself in the spotlight of American media. Recently, however, the lights seem to have dimmed. It’s true that Jalil Jalani doesn’t have the star power of Husain Haqqani or Sherry Rehman, but there is a growing concern among some that Pakistani officials no longer have the attention of their Washington counterparts the way they once did.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama last October were disappointing, to say the least. What we hoped was a one-time event, however, is starting to look like a pattern. As the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, we would expect the Americans to be paying close attention to Pakistan, but Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz’s trip to Washington seemed to be missing its primary audience.
While the Foreign Minister’s meetings with Secretary Kerry and his appearances at Washington think tanks made headlines at home, he was all but ignored by the American media. More worrying, however, was the lack of interest from influential American bureaucrats and academics. A source inside the Embassy in Washington described concern about a lack of attendance at the Foreign Minister’s speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC on Tuesday. To make the room look full, even junior Embassy staff were brought in to fill the seats – something that had not been a problem at past events.
It is worth asking whether Washington has lost interest, or whether American officials have simply grown tired of hearing empty talking points. While in Washington, Foreign Minister Aziz claimed that the government would use full force against all foreign terrorists on Pakistan’s soil, while in Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif once again extended an olive branch to the Taliban. Do we think the Americans are not paying attention to these contradictions?
Whatever the future holds for Afghanistan, America is not going to disappear as a dominant force on the world stage, and whatever our disagreements about American policy, Pakistan can not effectively promote its interests if its officials are seen as lacking credibility.