After the Kerry visit: Dialogue may commence, but drones will continue

Published: August 6, 2013

Was Kerry subconsciously influenced by the anti-drones tirade delivered to him by Imran Khan earlier in the day? PHOTO: AFP

It was scheduled, then postponed. Then it was rescheduled—only to be postponed again.

Then, on July 31, it finally happened—US Secretary of State John Kerry made his long-awaited trip to Pakistan.

Alas, there were few major achievements.

However, there were two notable takeaways. At first glance, each one may seem to be a boon for US-Pakistan ties. Yet at second glance, one comes away significantly less optimistic.

The first takeaway is that Kerry and his Pakistani interlocutors are really serious about restarting the Strategic Dialogue, which has been suspended for two years.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. Deep and sustained dialogue builds trust, which is sorely lacking in the bilateral relationship. It also allows Washington to partner with Islamabad on non-security matters, which are largely free of the hostility and tensions that plague the dicey security relationship—and therefore provide foundations on which to build a long-term relationship for the post-2014 era.

Ah, but if only it were that simple.

Washington has few strategic relationships—wide-ranging, foolproof partnerships overflowing with so much trust that intelligence-sharing is taken for granted. Those relationships that do exist (think the US-Israel and US-UK relationships) can easily withstand any bilateral bumps.

The US-Pakistan relationship, by contrast, is not blessed with a large reservoir of goodwill to weather crises. Cursed with unrealistic expectations, divergent interests, and mutual mistrust, US-Pakistan relations are volatile at best and dysfunctional at worst. It wouldn’t take much to bring a resurrected Strategic Dialogue to a screeching halt—recall how the talks were suspended after a series of crises in 2011.

This isn’t to say the Strategic Dialogue isn’t worth restarting; both nations are certainly better off with a deeper relationship. It would be folly for Washington to take lightly a nation that controls critical supply routes to and from Afghanistan, and that exerts influence over the Afghan Taliban—and that, looking to the long term, is one of the world’s most youthful, populous, and strategically placed countries.

Likewise, it would be silly for Pakistan to shrug off a superpower that provides so many essential things—from export markets and economic assistance to military hardware.

But let’s be realistic. How seriously can we take a strategic dialogue involving two nations that arguably share only one major strategic interest—stability in Pakistan—and differ wildly on how to achieve it?

This brings me to the second key takeaway of Kerry’s whirlwind visit: The conciliatory comments on, of all things, drones. The secretary of state stunned the world by saying in a PTV interview that,

“I think the [drone] program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat… I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

So does this mean a huge source of bilateral tensions is poised to disappear? Well, yes, if Kerry’s statement were actually true. In reality, it is most assuredly not true at all. Unless, by “very very soon”, Kerry meant after 2014.

Washington won’t soon end what a top US official in 2009 called “the only game in town” capable of targeting al Qaeda’s leadership, and what is regarded by Washington today as the most effective option to eliminate Pakistan-based militants that attack US troops in Afghanistan—as well as civilian, government, and military targets in Pakistan.

So why, then, did Kerry make such a questionable comment? Was he simply exhausted, given that his Pakistan visit was directly preceded by a gruelling period of intensive diplomacy to restart Mideast negotiations? Did he slip up and revert to the old ways of his senate days, when he could freely voice his largely pro-Pakistan personal sentiments (unlike now, when he represents the White House as Washington’s chief diplomat)? Or was Kerry subconsciously influenced by the anti-drones tirade delivered to him by Imran Khan earlier in the day?

I frankly don’t know the answer. Perhaps Kerry was simply looking for ways to keep alive the warming trend in US-Pakistan relations—particularly as both sides look ahead to a visit Nawaz Sharif will apparently be making to Washington later this year.

Overall, what strikes me the most about Kerry’s visit is how much it was a reflection of the bilateral relationship on the whole. It was volatile (how many high-level bilateral visits are rescheduled twice?), opaque (strikingly little emerged about what was actually discussed), and a bit melodramatic (that the trip being billed as “unannounced” is a bit much, given that numerous media outlets had reported it several days in advance).

So was it a successful visit? Sure. Yet will it lead to greater things? Stay tuned—though we might want to keep our expectations in check.

Michael.Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sane

    Drones will prevail. Unbreakable ‘friendship’ of Pakistan and USA shall also prevail.Recommend

  • Bakhtawer BIlal

    Of course, Kerry did not say, “drone attacks will end” All he said was ” we HOPE it will end very very soon.” We all hope the good things to happen. We do hope the insurgency to die down, and attacks by the Talibans come to an end. Similarly we hope that once the attacks cease, the drones will cease as well. Hope is a good thing, I guess. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nice but you do come across as not very charitable towards Kerry…….keep in mind he is the follow up act after Hillary……….a tough proposition by any standards.
    Recommend

  • Mehdi

    drones are so beautiful :) they are messenger of peace because they target terrorist, who still want to lead a regressed life of 6th century AD.Recommend

  • unbelievable

    Still waiting for some author to point out the obvious. Kerry didn’t really want to come to Pakistan as nothing of substance was on the agenda. Nothing was accomplished by the trip because nothing of substance was on the agenda – and Kerry won’t be coming back to Pakistan until you put something of substance on an agenda. BTW – drones isn’t a subject that is negotiable let alone substantive from the USA perspective.Recommend