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Drones, Afghanistan to Top Agenda During Pakistani Leader Trip to Washington

  • Ayaz Gul

FILE - Nawaz Sharif, then leader of Pakistan's largest opposition party, gestures during a media conference in Islamabad, Pakistan.

FILE - Nawaz Sharif, then leader of Pakistan's largest opposition party, gestures during a media conference in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will meet President Barack Obama in Washington next week on October 23, his first interaction with the U.S. leader since entering office in June. No breakthroughs are anticipated on controversies such as U.S. drone strikes and the Pakistani military’s links with Afghan insurgents. However, despite mutual distrust and suspicion, Sharif’s upcoming meeting with Obama is seen as crucial for bilateral relations.

Pakistan badly needs foreign assistance to overcome its economic troubles and deepening energy crisis.

The United States will be heavily relying on Islamabad for a smooth withdrawal of most of American troops from neighboring Afghanistan next year. Moreover, Washington wants Pakistan to use its influence with the Afghan Taliban to convince the group to stop committing acts of violence and join the political reconciliation process.

Bilateral relations hit rock bottom in 2011 and 2012 after an American military raid killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan and a NATO airstrike mistakenly killed some two dozen Pakistani border forces.

However, Pakistan's minister for privatization and commerce, Khurram Dastgir Khan, told VOA that the newly elected government is serious about putting Pakistan-U.S. ties “on a more firm and less personalized footing”.

“We need to move, I think, beyond what has traditionally been a transactional mode of Pakistan-U.S. relationship and go into a more long term civilian relationship because what we have seen so far has principally been a military relationship between the two countries,” said Khan.

Khan went on to add that Pakistan has been seeking more trade with the United States, not financial aid. He also said Prime Minister Sharif will highlight this issue when he meets President Obama. However, the minister was cautious about the outcomes of the talks in general.

"I think there is a lot of work to be done in that area. I think we are coming off a very rocky 2012 in which Pakistan-U.S. relations for a few weeks really touched rock bottom. We are rebuilding our relationship with the U.S. but perhaps the 2012 debacle is something that we could learn from and convince the U.S. elected leadership that now Pakistan society is moving forward on a more firm democratic basis then it used to,” commented Khan.

There are two contentious issues that have prevented Pakistan and the United States from reestablishing comprehensive relations. The first is the American drone strikes against targets on Pakistani soil.

The other issue is that al-Qaida-linked militant sanctuaries in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area being used for staging insurgent attacks on U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials say Prime Minister Sharif will take up the drone issue in the meeting with President Obama.

Minister Khan insisted that for the United States drones are simply one of the many tools in the fight against terror, but they are fueling militancy in his country.

“The costs of the U.S. drone program are far higher [than] any claimed benefit, whether in terms of hitting the extremists that the U.S. claims… the number of high-profile extremists [killed] that can be claimed as a success of the drone program is really very small and, compared to that the civilian toll… has been too large,” said Khan.

Pakistan insists it continues to pay a heavy human and financial cost for supporting the U.S. led war in neighboring Afghanistan. The policy, officials say, has outraged pro-Taliban religious extremists at home, who have unleashed a deadly insurgency in the country, killing more than 40,000 Pakistanis, including security forces.

Despite the political tensions, the United States remains Pakistan’s biggest donor and largest source of foreign direct investment.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Meghan Gregonis in Islamabad declared that “trade and investment are the future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship," and that the United States is firmly committed to its partnership with Pakistan.

She added that two-way trade in 2012 stood at more than five billion dollars and the United States is Pakistan’s largest export market.

Both countries have been negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty for several years. U.S. officials hope those negotiations can be brought to a successful conclusion; perspective talks on the text have been completed and U.S officials are now awaiting a response from Pakistani officials on how they wish to proceed.