AFP- Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif departed Saturday for talks in the United States, with the Afghan peace process and the prickly issue of Washington’s drone campaign likely to top the agenda.
Relations between Pakistan and the US, fractious allies in the “war on terror”, have been on the mend this year after lurching from crisis to crisis in 2011 and 2012.
Sharif meets President Barack Obama on Wednesday with Washington keen to press the Pakistani premier to help faltering efforts to secure peace between Kabuland the Afghan Taliban.
Sharif will use the trip to seek help for his country’s ailing economy and dysfunctional energy sector.
Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at US think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations, said that since coming to power in May Sharif had impressed Washington with his willingness to be a partner.
In the past Pakistan has been accused of being unhelpful in the Afghan peace process and of maintaining links with the Taliban, whose government in the 1990s Islamabad formally recognised.
The release of Afghan Taliban prisoners from Pakistani custody, including senior rebel leader Abdul Ghani Baradar last month, had gone some way to diminish these accusations, Markey said.
He said Obama would likely appreciate any new ideas from Pakistan on how to jump-start the Afghan peace process as the United States and NATO prepare to withdraw combat troops next year.
“If the Pakistanis come armed with some ideas on that front, they may win some points. If there are specific things that they can offer, they can show themselves to be helpful,” said Markey, author of the new book “No Exit from Pakistan” on the two nations’ relationship.
Thorn in relations
Pervez Rashid, Pakistan’s information minister and spokesman for the government, told AFP the delegation would use the trip to raise the issue of drones.
The CIA’s campaign of missile strikes from unmanned aircraft targeting suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border has been a significant thorn in relations.
The drone strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan and Islamabad publicly condemns them as counter-productive and a violation of sovereignty, though previous governments are known to have given their tacit support to them.
The US regards the strikes as a highly effective tool in the fight against Islamist militancy and Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari said there was little obvious room for progress on the issue.
“The US will refuse to stop these attacks, stressing that Pakistan must improve their control in the tribal areas, which Pakistan is unable to do at the moment,” Askari told AFP.
Parts of the tribal areas are effectively beyond the writ of the Pakistani state and provide safe havens for militants attacking NATO forces in Afghanistan.
A compromise could be reached, Markey suggested, in which the US restricts the number of strikes and coordinates with Pakistan to target only specific Al-Qaeda-linked figures.
But he said that any deal could hinge on the status of the Haqqani network, the militant force classified as terrorists by the United States, which in the past has said that the group is connected to Pakistani intelligence.
“Washington would have to be willing under those circumstances to effectively stop targeting Haqqani targets because the Pakistanis won’t allow that. They would never say that they qualify as an Al-Qaeda affiliate and so that may just be a fundamental stumbling block,” said Markey.
A senior US State Department official said drone strikes were “part of a very comprehensive conversation we have on security across the board”.
“One of the things we want to hear about are the Sharif government’s own plans for dealing with their domestic terrorism issues, and what they see as the future of engaging with the TTP (Pakistani Taliban), what the status is of potential peace discussions,” the official added.
Sharif is also expected to meet officials from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as well as private investors as he seeks to make good on election promises to reinvigorate Pakistan’s flaccid economy.
The IMF warned Pakistan last month that economic growth could be worse than expected next year due to strict austerity measures built into a $6.7 billion rescue loan.
Growth has bumped along at three percent in recent years, far below the seven percent experts say is needed to absorb the growing young population into the workforce.
While Washington is likely to pledge support for the economy, Askari said, it is unlikely to promise new aid in addition to the money already being given under the Kerry-Lugar bill and Coalition Support Fund.