Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Washington and his meeting with President Barack Obama reopened lines of communication broken over the last few years by drones and commando raids. The atmospherics were good; the two had a longer than planned one-on-one. But the visit produced no breakthroughs in what has become an increasingly dysfunctional relationship. The United States and Pakistan are more opponents than allies, but it is important to keep the lines of communication open and Sharif's visit will provide a base for future efforts to find common areas of cooperation, especially as the situation in Afghanistan clarifies in 2014.
A decade ago, George W. Bush embraced Pervez Musharraf as America's top ally in the war against terror. In the years that followed, Bush and Obama provided Pakistan with over $25 billion in military and economic aid, including 18 F-16 jet fighters and a Perry Class frigate. The goal was to fight al-Qaeda. Only Israel got more aid from America in the last decade.
In practice, however, America and its NATO allies are fighting a proxy war with Pakistan in Afghanistan. Washington, backed by the United Nations, supports the Karzai government while Islamabad backs Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban. A secret NATO report leaked last year, titled "The State of the Taliban", held that Pakistan and the ISI are the critical patrons of the Taliban insurgency. According to over 27,000 interrogations of captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, the ISI not only provides safe haven, sanctuary and funds for the Taliban, its officers meet regularly to plan strategy against the NATO with Omar's Quetta Shura. Without ISI help, the Taliban would not be the force they are today.
Sharif backed the Afghan Taliban the last time he was in office and rebuffed repeated US requests to try to end its support for al-Qaeda. This year, he has promised to try to encourage the Taliban to come to the peace table with Kabul. Releases of Taliban commanders, arrested in the past because they wanted dialogue, have been carefully staged to give an appearance of substance to the effort. Washington has every reason to encourage Pakistan to use its enormous leverage with the Taliban to open a dialogue with Kabul.
So far, it all looks more like subterfuge than reality. It is far from clear that the prime minister has the clout to control the ISI and the army in their dealings with the Taliban. Obama heard positive words about reconciliation from Sharif; the proof will be if the Taliban sit down with Karzai's peace team. Don't hold your breath.
America, of course, is also fighting a clandestine drone war in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan. The pace of lethal drone attacks has decreased significantly in the last year, but they remain a major irritant for Pakistan. Even Malala Yousafzai raised the drone war with Obama when she visited the Oval Office. Sharif pressed publicly for an end to the drone war. He didn't get it.
Without the drones, President Obama would have no means to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which is the goal of his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. We have tried relying on the ISI before to fight al-Qaeda. Then we found Osama bin Laden hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, just outside the army's top military academy. Obama rightly decided he could not trust Pakistan with intelligence about bin Laden's hideout and ordered a secret commando raid to kill him. Other al-Qaeda operatives turned over to the ISI, such as Hassan Ghul, the man who first told the CIA about bin Laden's key courier network, were freed by the ISI. Ghul was finally killed by a drone strike. Ilyas Kashmiri, the terrorist bin Laden ordered to assassinate Obama, was killed in a drone strike. If there is no American pressure on al-Qaeda in Pakistan after 2014, al-Qaeda and its associates will regenerate there fast and furiously.
So the future of American-Pakistani relations will be heavily influenced in the next couple of years by what happens in Afghanistan and what happens with al-Qaeda in Pakistan itself. If Sharif can help arrange a political end to the war and allows American counter-terrorism operations to keep al-Qaeda in check, then relations will get better. If not, they will probably deteriorate further.
Often forgotten is another issue that troubles the relationship behind the scenes and off camera — Pakistan's nuclear ambitions. Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear weapons arsenal in the world today.
It is under no international regime. America pointedly refuses to consider giving Pakistan an Indian-style civil nuclear deal because of Pakistan's track record as a nuclear proliferation machine.
Sharif and Obama have wisely decided to agree to disagree for now on many of the issues that divide them. Resuming high-level communications is an important first step towards a more healthy and mature bilateral relationship. Communications should also facilitate cooperation on economic assistance and reducing trade barriers. America has an interest in a prosperous Pakistan that can provide better services for its own people. But Obama should have no illusions about Pakistan and its policies.
Two key issues lie ahead. If the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the US is agreed on and approved in the next few weeks, it will also help to stabilise the region. Once it is clear that there will be a residual NATO presence in Afghanistan after 2014, perhaps 8,000-10,000 strong, all parties will have less uncertainty to deal with in future. If the security agreement is not finalised, then uncertainty will intensify and the region will face a very unstable future.
Second, Sharif faces a key decision when he gets home. He has to select a new chief of army staff. The last time he made this choice he picked Musharraf. He needs to choose better this time. Washington will be watching very closely to see if Sharif's choice of COAS suggests Pakistan is prepared to cooperate in Afghanistan or remains wedded to the Taliban.