US-Pakistan: The Hijab of Expectations

United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue

The United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, an annual bilateral discussion on matters of security and economic  importance, kicks off on Monday. As the final such dialogue under the Obama administration, it is the last opportunity left for this White House to leave a mark on the United States-Pakistan relationship. Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been tumultuous under President Obama, and many thorny issues remain. In this four-part series, Rabia Akhtar  and Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy will provide pre-dialogue analysis on what to expect from the talks. Once the dialogue ends, Sana Ali and Abhijit Iyer-Mitra will reflect on what happened and how that will impact Washington’s relationship with Islamabad and New Delhi in the near future.

-Team South Asian Voices


The United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is a platform to manage the relationship at various levels. Notwithstanding mutual interests, there is deep-rooted suspicion and distrust of each other’s motives and intentions that has given rise to heightened expectations on both sides. While Nawaz Sharif’s government would like to prioritize expanding trade and investment cooperation between the two countries, other U.S. concerns might take priority in this latest round of dialogue.


While the United States is appreciative of Pakistan’s domestic counterterrorism efforts and the limited successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb since June 2014, Washington remains skeptical of Islamabad’s strategy of using militant proxies to counter Indian influence in the region. A terrorist attack such as the January 2 assault on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot diminishes Pakistan’s counterterrorism returns. Not only will it prove detrimental to future United States-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation, but it may also damage the peace process between Pakistan and India. The United States has stated in unambiguous terms that it expects Pakistan to target militant groups operating from its territory conducting attacks in India. Pakistan should anticipate pressure during this latest round of talks to demonstrate its seriousness by dismantling proxy infrastructure.

Though the responsibility for the Pathankot attack was taken by the United Jihad Council (UJC) an outfit comprised of several Kashmiri militant organizations—the knee-jerk reaction from India was to blame Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a banned militant organization. Both JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—the latter being the outfit responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament—are indirectly affiliated with the UJC. Therefore, Pakistan must take concrete steps to show the United States that its counterterrorism policy does not differentiate between good and bad militants.

Nuclear Safety and Security

Irrespective of the number of times Pakistani and U.S. officials relay their confidence in the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, skepticism remains.According to their recent joint statement, “The United States expressed full confidence in Pakistan’s indigenous efforts to strengthen nuclear security, and welcomed Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen export controls and border security […].” In Pakistan, this was hailed as a diplomatic success, whereby Islamabad’s efforts to harmonize its strategic trade controls with Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and other export control regimes were recognized and acknowledged.

However, despite this encouragement, it is unlikely that Pakistan’s pursuit of NSG membership on a criteria-based approach or a civilian nuclear deal with the United States will resonate with the U.S. policy community anytime soon. It is in Pakistan’s interest to gradually step away from seeking an India-like exemption for membership in the NSG, or a civilian nuclear deal similar to the Indo-U.S. agreement. The reason for this is two-fold: one, it derides Pakistan’s genuine desire for access to nuclear technology—that it has been denied for so long— as mere tit-for-tat nuclearism to match Indian engagements with the international community. Second, after having established a robust nuclear safety and security regime, achieving full-spectrum deterrence, and successfully inducting an assortment of strategic missiles, Pakistan needs to look inward. It should work towards sustainability of its nuclear force and credibility of its nuclear deterrent. In order to achieve these objectives, a peaceful domestic security environment is a must, which the United States will also see as a win.

What is heartening to note is that Pakistan has completed its interagency process and is ready to ratify the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM). The National Command Authority’s in-principle approval for ratification in its latest meeting will likely come up in the dialogue, and Pakistan might submit its instrument for ratification to the IAEA before or after this year’s final Nuclear Security Summit.

Defense Cooperation

The Obama Administration plans to sell Pakistan eight F-16 fighter planes. However, Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed his intention to block the deal. Congressional and Indian reservations against the sale of F-16s to Pakistan will be trying for the outgoing administration, despite the Pentagon downplaying Indian concerns. Still, the administration remains determined as they believe the fighters are critical in assisting Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations. There is no doubt that this issue will be high on the agenda during the dialogue, and will be key for the outgoing administration to wrap up its eight-year ‘strategic’ partnership with Pakistan.

Coalition Support Funds (CSF) Post-U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Pakistan requested the United States to continue its support for the war on terrorism even after boots were taken off the ground. According to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), CSF provided to Pakistan for FY2014 was $1.2 billion and for FY 2015 was authorized up to $1 billion.

Consistent calls for the United States to revise, amend, or end aid and assistance to Pakistan have been made. However, Pakistan is still directly engaged in fighting terrorism, and has perhaps the biggest stake in pursuing peace in the region. Pursuing the Haqqani Network or fighting Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) inside Pakistani territory requires money. Pakistan should not place all its eggs in one basket and should not appear dependent on U.S. money and machines to fight its own war on terrorism. Pakistan needs to diversify aid channels and seek alternate funding sources, perhaps seeking more help from China. As U.S. boots exit the region, Pakistan needs to cut the umbilical cord to facilitate a process of independent growth it has not experienced in nearly two decades.

Both sides have immense stake in continuing the dialogue in good faith. Though obvious irritants, as discussed, will remain, both sides have the potential to overcome mutual differences, and work towards achieving their strategic objectives in South Asia.


Image: Mark Wilson-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , Cooperation, Defence, Foreign Policy, NSG, Nuclear Security, Pakistan, Security, Terrorism, US

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research and heads the School of Integrated Social Sciences at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs. She is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. Dr. Akhtar holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. She has written extensively on South Asian nuclear security and deterrence dynamics. She is the author of the book ‘The Blind Eye: U.S. Non-proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton’. Dr. Akhtar is also the Editor of Pakistan Politico, Pakistan’s first strategic and foreign affairs magazine. She received her Masters in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and her Masters in Political Science from Eastern Illinois University, USA. She is also a Fulbright alumna (2010-2015).

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3 thoughts on “US-Pakistan: The Hijab of Expectations

  1. I recently finished HARD CHOICES by Hillary Clinton….somewhat in the same context but very rich and in depth information …….this paper is another good read esp after reading Hard Choices. Excellent paper by Rab’s. Congratulations.

  2. It is a good read.

    On the issue of NSG membership and criteria, I do feel there is a need that Pakistan should propose criteria that would be acceptable for Islamabad rather than just demand a criteria based approach, without presenting any tangible agenda that such a criteria might entail.

    Moreover, one also sees the logic of distancing away from demanding just an India type deal and exemption as it definitely makes Pakistan’s genuine desire/need for access to nuclear technology and energy look solely motivated by ‘tit-for-tat nuclearism (though in reality it is not).

  3. Rabs,
    Up to your high standards.
    Pakistan’s standing on Capitol Hill is declining. Sen. Corker’s posture on the F-16s is reflective of this.
    Pakistan’s good works in fighting the Pakistan Taliban are undermined by its track record vis a vis extremist groups that engage in cross-border attacks. If it’s the same old drill after Pathankot — round up the usual suspects, custody, seal offices, then release from custody and Jaish is again open for business — then trend lines on the Hill will continue downward for Pakistan.
    These factors may be under-appreciated in Pakistan. Or they may be trumped by higher priorities.
    As for the safety and security issue, let’s be on the lookout for the language used after the bilateral, and compare it to last year’s.
    Best wishes,

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