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For Obama, tough task of soothing Pakistan relationship

Oct. 23, 2013 - 02:57PM   |  
With Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif set to visit the White House on Wednesday, President Barack Obama is hoping to make progress on rebuilding a rocky relationship between the two countries.
With Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif set to visit the White House on Wednesday, President Barack Obama is hoping to make progress on rebuilding a rocky relationship between the two countries. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
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WASHINGTON — With Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif set to visit the White House on Wednesday, President Obama is hoping to make progress on rebuilding a rocky relationship between the two countries. That relationship hit its nadir nearly two years ago in the aftermath of the stealth capture of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

Pakistani officials complained that the Obama administration, which did not seek permission or even advise Pakistan’s government ahead of the May 2011 Navy SEAL operation, violated the country’s sovereignty. And months after the bin Laden raid, Adm. Michael Mullen, who was then the top American military officer, called Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency a “veritable arm” of the Haqqani militant network — arguably the most powerful group attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The rhetoric between the two countries has cooled in recent months, but deep differences remain.

Since taking office in June, Sharif has been outspoken in his criticism of U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in Pakistan’s restive tribal region. He also spoke out against the strikes in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, arguing that the civilian casualties from the strikes undercut Pakistan’s “resolve and efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism from Pakistan.”

Still, the White House says Sharif’s visit demonstrates the resilience of its complicated relationship with Pakistan. Underscoring hopes for improving the complicated relationship, the State Department announced ahead of Sharif’s visit on Sunday that $1.6 billion in security and economic assistance to Pakistan, which had been frozen during the period of strained relations, will be released.

“We want to find ways for our two countries to cooperate even as we have differences on some issues,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “And we want to make sure the trajectory of this relationship is a positive one.”

Analysts, however, are pessimistic there will be any major breakthrough during the visit.

“I feel this is a temporary feel-good moment,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, who served as an adviser to former Pakistani president Asif Zardari and is a former member of parliament. “This moment, like a lot of moments of past years, will unfortunately not bear long-term fruit.”

Sharif, who arrived in the United States on Sunday and has already met with Secretary of State John Kerry, is expected to press Obama on the administration’s drone policy and will ask the president to intervene on Pakistan’s long-running dispute with India over the contested region of Kashmir — emotional issues for the Pakistani public where Sharif is unlikely to budge Obama.

Both Sharif and Obama share anxieties about the future of Afghanistan, as the U.S. prepares to wind down the long war next year.

While Obama has not decided whether he will keep a residual military presence behind beyond 2014, the Pakistanis are nervous about what the next Afghan election (current Afghan President Hamid Karzai is set to leave office next year) will bring. And the Pakistanis have long complained that the U.S. approaches their relationship through the lens of the ongoing Afghan war, said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington,

Earlier this year, the administration applauded Pakistan for helping persuade the Afghan Taliban to agree to start peace talks with Karzai’s government — an effort that quickly fell apart. Hathaway said the administration would like to see greater effort from Pakistan in getting the Taliban to engage in a peace process in the months ahead.

Administration officials also believe the Pakistanis can do much more to help root out the Haqqani network and other extremists who use Pakistan as a base to conduct strikes against U.S. troops, he said.

But in the end, Hathaway said expectations for the visit should be “very modest.”

“The two sides disagree in fundamental ways about some of the most important issues on the table,” Hathaway said. “There is not going to be a miraculous meeting of the minds.”

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