Washington Summit: Ships Passing In The Night


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meeting with Barack Obama at the White House

Before he left Washington, a journalist friend in America wanted to speak with the Prime Minister to get his thoughts on how he thought the high-level meetings had gone. He was turned away, though, told that the Prime Minister was very busy and didn’t want to be disturbed. Through a cracked doorway, though, he could see the PM sitting alone and thinking, a somber expression on his face. He looked not like a man who had just engaged in political talks of global importance, but a businessman who had just left a meeting where he was told that his partners were no longer interested in doing business with him. My friend left the Prime Minister with this thoughts.

One wonders if Nawaz Sharif dreaded the visit from the very beginning. After all, his visits with American Presidents as Prime Minister have not been comfortable, historically. His last visit was in 1999 when he landed with a desperate request for President Clinton to save us from the Kargil disaster that eventually landed him in exile as overly ambitious military officers once again played the coup card against the ‘bloody civilians’. As his plane took off from Pakistan last week to carry him to Washington while bullets flew along the Line of Control, did the Prime Minister have a sinking feeling of deja vu?

Though the Prime Minister’s meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama were private, reports do not suggest they were approached as anything other than ‘pro forma’ meetings, necessary to protocol but not expected to produce anything other than checking a box to say it was done.

This could also be seen in a speech by the Prime Minister in Washington that was broadcast on the internet. In his delivery, the Prime Minister sounded as if he were reading a script, not delivering his own remarks. To some degree, this is not unusual. Addresses by world leaders are almost always carefully scripted. The difference was that, in this case, it sounded like the PM’s heart wasn’t in it.

There was an exception, though, which was when the Prime Minister was asked to speak about relations with India. With this, he seemed to perk up a bit. No surprise, after all, as this is something he truly cares about and believes in: Using economics and trade to strengthen ties and move beyond the grievances of the past. His treatment of this issue was noticeably different from the majority of his comments which were rattled off like a wish list of someone else’s priorities given to him to deliver to Washington: Kashmir, drones, peace talks with Taliban, Aafia…A list that the Prime Minister could barely pretend to care about, and seemed sure President Obama would file in the dustbin once he left.

Media at home hailed the Prime Minister’s telling President Obama to stop drone attacks and to appreciate Pakistan’s security concerns vis-a-vis India, but he was responded by the American President with uncomfortable American questions about Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and cross-border militant activity.

Today, the media has begun to downplay the visit, terming it as little more than a ‘get-to-know’ trip, as if the two nations had not been in close contact since the past several decades, and admitting that the visit ‘was nothing more than the reiteration of already stated positions’. Positions that have no intention of changing.

Several respected analysts declared the visit a waste. Ejaz Haider eloquently observed that “strategic relations are a function of interesting the world, not worrying it” and that countries only reap what they sow: “The external world is not going to grant us anything more than what we grant ourselves — in fact, less.”

Far from being a disappointment, though, it could be that this was outcome was not only foreseen but, to a certain degree, intended. It would certainly explain the PM’s half-hearted reiteration of standard positions on old issues if they were actually intended not for his American interlocutors, but for a domestic audience back home.

Husain Haqqani recently told The New York Times that “Pakistanis complain louder than Americans, so therefore, the sequence of who abandoned who is not always fully understood. One of the things I speak of in my book is how Pakistan’s elites almost always misled their people about what they had promised the Americans in private.”

Is it mere coincidence, then, that as secret documents reveal that the ISI was playing a double game, both providing the CIA with targeting for drone strikes while supporting jihadi groups, our media is busily misrepresenting Amnesty International’s report on drones and whipping the public sentiment against India?

Such a high level meeting between the Prime Minister and the American President should have been at least a symbolic gesture of progress and closer ties. Instead, it appears to be more evidence of Resul Bakhsh Rais’ observation that “some powerful sections in Pakistan weave narratives that would lead to isolation, putting Pakistan on the margins of global politics”.

Whether anyone intended to put Pakistan on the margins of global politics, this week’s meeting finds us pointed in that direction. Such an outcome may not matter much to the Americans. They will leave Afghanistan one way or another, and whether or not we wake from our dreaming, they will remain a global superpower. Our own intransigence and inability to face reality threatens to punish only ourselves.


Author: Shaista Sindhu


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