General Raheel Sharif in Washington: Déjà Vu all over again

Published: November 18, 2015

Army chief General Raheel Sharif meets CIA chief John Brennan on November 16, 2015. PHOTO: ISPR

As Raheel Sharif visits the United States, it’s worth taking stock of how little has changed in US-Pakistan relations.

Imagine you’re the US ambassador to Pakistan, and you’ve been tasked to draft a cable to prepare American officials in Washington for the visit of General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani army chief who has arrived in town for a five-day trip.

So what would you say?

First, you’d counsel some conciliatory comments:

“We should recognise growing Pakistani casualties in the fight against militants … (and) reiterate the long-term US commitment to support Pakistan.”

Soon thereafter, however, you’d urge your Washington counterparts to get down to business:

“We need to lay down a clear marker that Pakistan’s Army/Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency must stop overt or tacit support for militant proxies.”

And then you’d get to the heart of the matter:

“The single biggest message… is that this support must end. It is now counterproductive to Pakistan’s own interests and directly conflicts with USG objectives in Afghanistan—where (the) Haqqani (network) is killing American soldiers and Afghan civilians,” and in the broader region, where the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 “exposed the fruits of previous ISI policy to create Lashkar-e-Taiba and still threatens potential conflict between nuclear powers.”

Some thoughts on Afghanistan would be in order:

“We should ask for his views on what political end state in Afghanistan would convince them to end proxy support for militants.”

And on India as well:

Indo-Pak tensions are still simmering, but to avoid a potential Indian military strike, the government of Pakistan needs to continue to show progress on prosecuting those Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives responsible for the Mumbai attacks.”

Nuclear proliferation too:

“We believe that the military is proceeding with an expansion of both its growing strategic weapons and missile programs.”

There would also be some obligatory words on US military aid to Pakistan:

“We continue to work on delivering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aerial capability,” and “we need to come to agreement with Pakistan” on aligning US military support with Pakistan’s long-term counterterrorism needs.

Finally, you’d wrap up with some suggested talking points for conversations with General Sharif. Their tone would range from cordial (“What we seek going forward is an all-encompassing bilateral relationship based on what we can accomplish for the future.”) and inquisitive (“We must succeed in Afghanistan. What is your vision for what constitutes an acceptable outcome?”) to firm bordering on threatening:

“It is time to cut your ties to extremist groups/proxy forces and urge the permanent severing of ties. Such ties hinder trust and our ability to move forward together.”

In fact, there’s nothing hypothetical about this cable. It’s already been written— but not earlier this week. It was transmitted nearly seven years ago — in February 2009, several weeks after President Obama took office, on the eve of a visit to Washington by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani army chief at the time.

And yet it would also be a perfectly suitable memo to set the scene for General Sharif’s Washington meetings this week.

To be sure, much has changed in the US-Pakistan security relationship since 2009. The Pakistanis have significantly ramped up their fight against anti-state militants. The frequency of US drone strikes — another big theme in the 2009 memo — has diminished dramatically. Washington’s nuclear concerns have shifted from Pakistan’s strategic assets to its rapidly intensifying tactical stockpile. Above all, US forces are no longer fighting a combat war in Afghanistan, meaning that Washington does not need as much Pakistani counterterrorism and counter militancy assistance. Consequently, military aid flows to Pakistan could see some reductions — and the relationship on the whole could be scaled down to an extent.

And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The US continues to emphasise cooperation with, and a commitment to, Pakistan. It continues to seek Pakistani assistance in Afghanistan, and to ply the Pakistani military with money and material. For good reason, it continues to worry about Pakistan’s nukes and its volatile relationship with India.

And yet through it all, Pakistan’s security establishment continues to nurture ties with militant groups that endanger US interests and lives.

The cold hard calculus of international relations dictates that nations pursue relations with each other to help advance national interests. And yet Washington’s relations with Pakistan have arguably imperilled its core interests as much as they have advanced them. To be sure, Pakistan has helped US military efforts in Afghanistan by offering the use of supply routes, and it has assisted US drone efforts by letting the US use Pakistani military bases. Additionally, in recent months, Pakistan has waged major offensives against militants and their command-and-control systems in North Waziristan. This has brought some much-needed stability (read: fewer terror attacks in Pakistan, at least for now).

And yet even as it pockets billions in US aid and takes in tons of military hardware, Pakistan patronises proxy groups that terrorise Americans, Afghans, and Indians.

What accounts for this dysfunctional dynamic? One reason is naiveté: a belief that showering Pakistan with aid will, in time, compel it to act in ways that benefit US interests. As Husain Haqqani’s book Magnificent Delusions makes clear, US officials have long been content to keep the aid flowing while holding their noses and hoping for the best. Such an approach is utterly wrong-headed; US aid does not buy Washington leverage over Pakistan. Additionally, US and Pakistani interests are diametrically divergent on the militancy issue. For America, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba are dangerous groups that must be reined in. For Pakistan, these groups are useful assets because they make archenemy India vulnerable.

Another possible reason for Washington’s continued courtship of a nation that works against American objectives and interests? Fear. The US prefers to be on the good side of a volatile nuclear-armed nation than on its bad side.

Whatever the reason, we can expect more of the same this week in Washington. General Sharif’s meetings will feature plenty of discussion about Afghanistan—and how Pakistan can help bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. There will presumably be talk of a potential— though highly unlikely — deal to scale back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Sharif will likely make fresh pitches for new military assistance. The US will issue fresh calls for Pakistan to end its relationships with militants. And through it all, General Sharif will receive the full red carpet treatment— as he did on his last trip to Washington.

It’s possible and desirable to make the best of a difficult relationship. Indeed, there is considerable scope for genuine cooperation—based not on pie-in-the-sky hopes for a nuclear deal, but rather on limited but practical counterterrorism collaboration on shared threats such as al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, and, as November 13 made horrifically clear, an increasingly expansionist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Americans and Pakistanis can also work together to resuscitate the Afghan reconciliation process — though despite their best efforts, along with those of China, the Taliban has little incentive to come to the table, given its soaring successes on the battlefield. Additionally, Kabul’s enthusiasm for a peace process with a deep Pakistani imprint has dimmed of late. Yet given the stakes for a war with no military solution, this is something US officials should discuss in earnest with General Sharif.

Nevertheless, none of this will silence the constant refrain yapping at the heels of this relationship: We’ve been here before. Or, as the late and inimitable Yogi Berra famously put it,

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Disagree? Just refer back to that 2009 cable.

We’ve seen this movie before — literally. Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a weatherman doomed to repeat the same day — Groundhog Day — over and over. It is an apt metaphor for one of diplomacy’s most fraught bilateral partnerships.

When it comes to US-Pakistan security relations, every day is Groundhog Day.

This post originally appeared here.


Michael Kugelman

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

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

  • KahnaKacha

    “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

    US supported religious fanatics in Afghanistan (Mujahideen) against a secular, but anti US government. Some former allies went rouge, and Taliban were created.

    Now we see US doing same in Syria (Al Nusra Front), where some splitting up from the main group, and are going rouge (ISIS). déjà vu Indeed.Recommend

  • Anjaan

    Therefore the big question that comes to the fore is … who do the Americans think they are fooling … ?? … because they can neither fool Pakistan, nor India … !!Recommend

  • Deems

    hehe..look at that pic!Recommend

  • Anon

    We can have no relationship with the US if this how they view us vis a vis Afghanistan and India. Not a mention of India supporting insurgency in Pakistan or shelling at our border killing our citizens. India’s hostile response to peace talks and unnecessary escalation since the extremist right wing Modi came into power. Total diplomatic failure shown by the Pakistani government/establishment. It should be advised to the Americans that their established government does not represent much of Afghanistan and they are in almost all respects as bad as the Taliban. If they want to succeed in Afghanistan they should start treating the Taliban no differently than the warlords they brought to power. If you US considers all Indian assertions legitimate and cannot see the warmongering and India’s hostile attitude towards Pakistan then Pakistan should very seriously consider the status of it’s long term relationship with US.

    P.S. I know these aren’t the words of the ambassador but what Mr. Kugelman thinks the ambassador will write. I think the ambassador will be more up to date on current events and support reconciliation in AfghanistanRecommend

  • Anoop

    I think case is being built to sanction Pakistan. They will try the carrot method first and exhaust all options. They will try the carrot because US thinks Pakistan is necessary to get Taliban to the Table. But, Taliban will not let peace prevail. US will realize this and eventually pull out all troops.
    With no dependence on Pakistan, US will sanction Pakistan after 2017. Pakistan’s Economy being inconsequential in the world, will grind to a halt.
    9/11 saved Pakistan from sanctions last time. This time, there won’t be a repeat.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Here is your solution. Simple plain and even the village idiot will
    …….’ OUT OF AFGHANISTAN.’…. problem solved.
    Besides, Bharat is also aiding and abetting the extremists, terrorists, Baloch
    insurgents and has an ongoing propaganda to malign Pakistan internationally.Recommend

  • SKChadha

    This visit of COAS has become a joke …. :-))Recommend

  • Umar Agha

    Wow. This article is wreaking of double-standards and propaganda. Every expert knows Pakistan’s nukes are as secure as any; that India supports militant proxies too (Tamil Tigers, BLA/BRA/etc); that America itself uses militant proxies (Shia militias in Iraq, Sunni Syrian militias, Northern Alliance and many more — some of whom have committed as many atrocities as the Taliban or IS); that India’s hawkish approach is currently to blame for the belligerence on the LOC; that America’s own horrible nation-building experience in Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s own incompetent and corrupt governments are responsible for the mess — so what is this all about? This piece is like a propaganda paper out of the CIA’s media dept. I’m surprised it even got published. I think Pakistan is behaving just as “responsibly” as any of the other powers he has mentioned.Recommend

  • Asad

    the joke that is taking all attention of you and your countrymen ??Recommend

  • clap clap

    It must by now be clear to US that it has no more leverage over Pakistan. In fact Pakistan has set up its camp firmly in China’s backyard, and is even making overtures to Russia. Meanwhile Afghanistan is fast returning to business as usual for the Taliban. This visit of COAS is only to milk the US for remaining money and military hardware.Recommend

  • wb

    Yes. They’re playing who can crush whose fingers first?!!

    And look at the anger and distrust in their eyes. Looks like a scene out of Pulp Fiction.Recommend

  • SKChadha

    Aapne Theek Kaha …… We are just waiting how he grills (or making shrills) about India in US as your media reported …….. :-)))

    All in Pakistan are spinning and jumping with high voltage on his excursion tour to US but surprising to me no one worth mentioning was at Airport to receive him and not even a world from anywhere in World Media (except Pak Media jumping or Indian Media critically enjoying) about his presence in US. Surprisingly, not even local Washington Media or US State Department or Department of Defense uttered a word so far about his visit? Recommend

  • Maverick_NZ

    “And yet even as it pockets billions in US aid and takes in tons of
    military hardware, Pakistan patronises proxy groups that terrorise
    Americans, Afghans, and Indians.”,

    Don’t pretend to be innocent, US support for a whole smorgasbord of militants and warlords in Afghanistan as a counter-weight to Taliban is well known, many of them much worse in dealing with human rights. Before crying over US Aid, take a look at the trillions Americans paid for the war in Afghanistan, and for what, so that US can support some XYZ warlord to do its dirty work?
    Don’t even get me started on India. You’re singling out of Pakistan is sinister at least, hypocritical at best.Recommend

  • Maverick_NZ

    Touche. These people supported a puppet like Karzai for 10 years out of pure stubbornness and look where it got them.Recommend

  • Asad

    too bad mal-nutritioned dalbir singh cannot play this game of crushing fingers with anyone. he might even lose his life playing it with a healthy individual. LOOOL.Recommend

  • Asad

    just check out who received Modi on UK Airport, and then come laugh on us afterwards. Hint: it was not even one high ranking UK official. LOOLRecommend

  • SKChadha

    There were two ministers of UK at Airport Mr. Hugo George William Swire (Minister of State for Foreign Affairs & Commonwealth & Senior Parliamentarian) and Priti Patel (Minister of State for Employment) and UK’s High Commissioner to India James Bevan and several other officials of British Government. A small glimpse of the visit from UK Media:

  • wb

    True. But, I think, he’s playing the game of Crush Pakistan at every war. Errrrrr!!!Recommend

  • Asy ma wail !

    shaaabaash…claps, now go back to sleep :)Recommend

  • Asad

    If only he could take care of Kashmir problem with his 700,000 men present inside Kashmir first. LOOOLRecommend

  • Asad

    so no PM to receive PM ?? Wow, that is surely a display of how un-important your country is.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    Ask your military about short statured Gorkhas who wear the cap strap in the chin, they might desert due to fear.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    They are eternally fooling themselves by aiding Pak.Recommend

  • vasan

    Who are you to say where India should go or assist or not. This is the bane of PakistanRecommend

  • vasan

    And Pakistan retains its pious nature from 1947.Recommend

  • G. Din

    That is not the protocol. Only in exceptional circumstances dignitaries are received by their counterparts. As far as importance or otherwise goes, it varies. India is important to some, unimportant to others. By the way, who receives nawaz Sharief in Beijing?Recommend

  • G. Din

    Uh, uh, uh…You really told him off!Recommend

  • G. Din

    There is no Kashmir problem!Recommend

  • wb

    What Kashmir problem?! It’s just a figment of your imagination.Recommend

  • wb

    So, that’s good news for Pakistan. Great, now you can become the great power that you always wet-dreamed about.Recommend

  • SKChadha


  • Tanuja chandra

    By the way no more talk of the dossiers on Indian involvement that the other shreiff was touting around on his last visit, how come? After Paris surely there will be a rap on the knuckles inside the room about Haqqani Group, LET, and ilk. General will come back with a pat on the back and a do more advise a little more firmly conveyed. “Groundhog days” are numbered after ParisRecommend

  • PatrioticSoul

    ‘And yet through it all, Pakistan’s security establishment continues to
    nurture ties with militant groups that endanger US interests and lives.’

    This destroys the credibility of the writer. I cannot expect firm statements like these from an observer unless the guy can prove this in court of law.Recommend

  • NoOne

    India’s Tata group is the largest private sector employer in UK. That should tell you about the relationship between India and UK.Recommend

  • abhi

    yes all experts on facebook know that Pakistani nukes are safe.Recommend

  • abhi

    Also hear the speech made by PM Cameron at Wembley.Recommend

  • abhi

    yes and we know Sharif must be very good at it, because this is how COAS is selected in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You are normally better than this.Recommend

  • ajeet

    It was an MP and an AP as Modi was a leader of parliamentary democracy. Muslims who were never lived under a true democracy won’t be able to understand it.Recommend

  • ajeet

    Kashmir is more peaceful than Baluchistan.Recommend

  • ajeet

    PM’s dint receive PM’s until that PM is a Pakistani PM, then he would go to the airport to receive any Ghora coming with aid.Recommend

  • Gautam

    Completely agree with you, except that Pakistan seems to be enjoying the carrot option ;-)Recommend

  • The Truth

    Pakistan has conned US successfullly. Congratulations.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Might be a good idea if you start taking medications for bi-polar disorder.
    Your symptoms are clear. Mostly has to do with delusional thinking. No
    need to feel despondent. Just go to the nearest Govt. run clinic. They will
    help you.
    your friend

  • An Indian

    There is yet another, even simpler solution – don’t spare the errant child. Give it the royal treatment with the rod. If it had been given the first time it exported terrorism, things would have been quite different by now. The de-facto head of that terrorist state is enjoying Washington’s free lunch right now. Start with using the rod on him. Rest all will fall in line.Recommend

  • Babur

    wb, that is how strong manly men meet! Not that you’d know :)Recommend

  • Asad

    Lol every year this guy gives himself 2 years to see US sanction Pak, but that has not happened yet. I wonder what keeps him alive after all these failures, LOL.Recommend

  • Asy ma wail !

    lol, his only feed seems to be the way he gets ridiculed everyday from a little sense here and there, for his Utopian and delusional “ghyaan ” he keeps spreading without anyone asking :pRecommend

  • wb

    And how do STRONG MANLY MEN surrender en-mass? Like in 1971? I don’t know that also. Please explain.Recommend

  • Sane

    All of those were also in denial to receive Modi for last ten years. Isn’t it? The Modi was treated in UK is all published, you do not need to have his visit decorated.Recommend

  • Malik

    There’s not much he can do. From what I can tell (mostly from his blog) he’s a bored Indian at night-duty in some IT department, obsessed about Pakistan and to a lesser extent Muslims.Recommend

  • Anoop

    Till about 2002 Pakistan was under sanctions, genius. Pakistan has been sanctioned multiple times in various capacity since 1947, by the United states.

    Tell me one reason why US wouldn’t sanction Pakistan after 2017, when it gets out of Af-Pak?

    You guys don’t reasearch even a little bit before mouthing off, eh?Recommend

  • Anoop

    You are right. If you look back, I had stated clearly and umabigously US will sanction Pakistan when it doesn’t need it anymore. US was scheduled to remove troops out of Afghanistan by 2015, which moved to 2016 and then to 2017. I’ve stated the same here.

    Tell me one reason why US will not sanction Pakistan. We have seen it before. US got out of Afghanistan and sanctioned Pakistan in 1990s with Pressler ammendment.

    The sanctioned were increased after 1998 and removed them after 9/11 after US wanted Pakistan to get into Afghanistan.
    Tell me one reason why US wouldn’t sanction Pakistan after 2017?Recommend

  • SKChadha

    Bro, I do not have any specific love for Modi. Yes, we have respect for our PM whosoever he is. I have just replied to Asad’s post with facts.Recommend

  • Gullu

    No need to. Paid Hindu trolls are a dime a dozen
    on this ePaper. They are literally on every page.
    With their toxic hate, spitting poison and showcasing
    the average Hindu from Bharat.
    [able to read and write the Queen’s English.]Recommend

  • JP

    India’s whole world revolves around 1971. In their 5000
    years of history, India was a conquered country/area.
    So, 78,000 Pakistani soldiers surrounded by 700,000 Indians,
    plus assorted camp followers, cooks, water carriers,field toilet
    diggers[Indians are used to using the outdoors, nothing new]
    tailors, dhobis, religious icon sellers, vendors and the 100,000 Mukhti Bahini…so it was a victory…..? Huh?.Recommend

  • JP

    Indians were a conquered race. Going back thousand of years.
    So they wont know the difference. Used to being governed.
    Country is only 68 years old.Recommend

  • Anoop

    So you are saying the fact that US has sanctioned Pakistan many times in the past is immaterial because you think I am a Hindu agent!
    Wow! Genius!Recommend

  • Swaadhin

    India is counting on folks like you, the more the better.Recommend

  • Someone

    The ones who got conquered became Muslims. The ones who did not leave their religion, were not conquered.Recommend

  • Someone

    Suhag is from Gorkha rifles. The same one that US thought Pakidtan had it instead of India. Your bad luck started since then. Recommend