Palpable Progress, Uncertain Future?

United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue

Earlier in this series

US-Pakistan: The Hijab of Expectations

Repeat of the Familiar: US, Pakistan, and F-16s


This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Pakistani Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to the State Department to commence a series of wide-ranging working groups known as the Strategic Dialogue. Many analysts rightly wondered about the real scope of the now-annual dialogue, as their ties seem less bilateral than kinetic. For much of its history, the United States-Pakistan relationship has been defined by and propelled forward through the Afghan experience. The relationship suffers from a long arc of asymmetry, with both Washington and Islamabad drawing today’s conclusions from popularly falsified history. It comes as no surprise, then, that top leadership still express frustration at the cognitive disconnect and both sides’ proclivity to ‘otherize’ each other.

Secretary Kerry and Advisor Aziz underscored the need to move forward with a truly multi-faceted discussion—crucial for both sides. Secretary Kerry, whose diligent work brought about a successful outcome in the Iran talks, has a certain talent for finding convergence in difficult diplomatic situations. Meanwhile, Advisor Aziz faces a Washington that is ramping up anti-Pakistan rhetoric, with Congress recently threatening to stop the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. While the order of priority may have been different on both sides, several key issues were discussed.


Pakistan has never been able to help being forcibly wedded in the uncomfortable Af-Pak hyphenation. The issue that elbowed out any meaningful progress at strategic dialogues for years remains center stage in 2016. Just this past January, multiple channels of ongoing discussions took Islamabad by storm: quadrilateral (consisting of the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan), trilateral (minus the United States), bilateral (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and a robust Track-II program emanating from Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistan has reiterated its support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, but the thorn in its side remains the Haqqani network. Pakistan has remained candid about its limited ability to coerce or convince the Haqqanis towards the negotiating table. Fourteen years later, the battle-hardened Afghan Taliban has transformed into an astute political actor capable of dictating its own terms—balking at the idea that Islamabad retains an influential role in their future decisions. The successes (or failures) of the Afghan peace process in the coming months will be a key signal of the Afghan state’s effectiveness.

Defense, Security, and Nuclear Issues

Both Washington and Islamabad share key strategic objectives relating to counterterrorism and regional stability. Consequently, the importance for continued action against all violent extremism was underscored during the dialogue. For the United States, Pakistan has played a major role in degrading al-Qaeda. The successful Operation Zarb-e-Azb has done much to break the strength of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) but the challenges are nowhere near over. In his opening statements, Secretary Kerry lauded Pakistan for taking a “whole-of-government approach” to countering extremism—a statement that fails to consider the fact that the National Action Planformed by an All Parties Conference in the aftermath of the devastating Army Public School attack, has stagnated. This is an area where Pakistan must do better if it is focused on eradication of terror on its own soil.

While the reality of a nuclear deal between the United States and Pakistan seems far-fetched, recent reports suggest that Washington is interested in limiting Pakistan’s increasing nuclear program. This is one of the areas where there has always been an impasse. Pakistan would not sign any deal that would limit its scope and force it to compromise on its national security while the United States and India continue to strengthen their defense cooperation, including exploring missile defense. If deterrence theory is at play in South Asia, then Pakistan cannot be expected to undermine its safety net. The United States, of course, wants to see Pakistan work faster at harmonizing its trade controls with those of multilateral export control regimes and continue to work to assure the safety of its nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear security action plan, existing in cooperation with the IAEA, reinforces the physical protection of nuclear centers and nuclear plants, and it has been hosting IAEA training programs in Pakistan as well. Considering the focus on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has an urgent nature, it would not be surprising if there was a convergence on this issue in the coming year.

Aid and Trade

There seems to be agreement in both Washington and Islamabad that U.S. financial support to Pakistan, which was more than $500 million in civilian and military aid last year, has to change. A recent article by South Asia expert Daniel Markey divided aid into three distinct categories in hopes that this would bring about maximum effects. One of the issues that continues to plague Pakistan is energy. In a cash-strapped country with rolling brownouts, this is a major area of opportunity. It is a wise move by China to extend meaningful assistance in the renewable energy sector as part of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor plan.

Pakistan has recently expressed concerns about the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Pakistani exports. Pakistan stands likely to lose its major textile exports to Vietnam, a TPP member. Since the Zardari administration, Pakistan has requested duty-free access for its exports in American markets. This issue was certainly going to be raised again, and this time, Pakistan was prepared to report that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s trade delegation recently visited Pakistan to explore trade—a clear sign of the possibility of enhanced cooperation between private sectors.


It is crucial that engagements such as this become reliable constants in a relationship that needs to be further stabilized. There is a palpable sense of progress after these talks, so perhaps it would benefit Washington and Islamabad to hold it twice a year, with hard deliverables and set deadlines in order to meet shared objectives. There is a long way to go for 2017.


Image: Anadolu Agency, Getty

Posted in , Afghanistan, Defence, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Security, Trade, US

Sana Ali

Sana Ali

Ms. Sana Ali holds a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Relations (concentrating in Strategic Studies) and International Economics. Ms. Ali has previously served as an aide to Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Ambassador Sherry Rehman at the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, DC, maintaining a strong focus on internal and regional security issues. She serves on the Board of Directors of Marshall Direct Fund, a non-profit dedicated to education efforts and the empowerment of women in the Pakistani economy. Ms. Ali currently is the Editor of leading Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times.

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One thought on “Palpable Progress, Uncertain Future?

  1. Sana,
    Well done. Thorough and measured.
    The strategic dialogue is crucial, in my view. There will always be ups and downs in this relationship. The strategic dialogue is serving as a stabilizing function.

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