Sharif's Futile Trip to Washington

There is a joke in Washington D.C. about the Pakistani politicians and lobbyists: If you ask them how their country is doing, they will tell you how India is doing. If you ask them what is wrong with their country, they will tell you what is wrong with Afghanistan. If you ask how they can fix their country, they will tell you what America is not doing to fix their country. If you ask what future looks like for Pakistan, they will tell you how the past (starting from 1979) looks like.

Gosh, that is what makes Pakistan such a hard foreign policy question. The Americans don't know much about that country in order to make wiser policy decisions while the Pakistanis are intentionally unwilling to state how they can put their house in order without always externalizing the blame for their problems on other countries.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just missed one more opportunity last week during his visit to Washington to clearly put forward his 'ask' to Washington. He met with President Obama and spoke at the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP). There was one consistent theme in his speeches: He whined about India more than taking ownership of his country's woes. The Americans indirectly warned the Prime Minister that they would not blindly trust all his one-liners coming from the decades-old India-centric foreign policy. On the contrary, Washington indicated that it was more inclined toward the Indian version of the narrative on Kashmir than Islamabad's.

While coming to Washington, Sharif had three major expectations and Washington, much to his disappointment, entertained none of them.

First, rumors spread days before Sharif's trip that the United States was planning to offer Pakistan a civil nuclear deal similar to the one President George W. Bush had offered India in 2005. Islamabad, which was then perceived as a closer ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, was absolutely furious about Bush's decision and continued to demand a similar deal. President Bush insisted that India and Pakistan had different histories and needs. Because of the illegal activities of Pakistan's rogue nuclear scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan, Islamabad had already tarnished its reputation and that made it much harder for Washington to treat Islamabad as trustworthy as New Delhi. During Sharif's trip, Washington did not officially indicate at all if it intended to offer Pakistan a civil nuclear deal in the foreseeable future.

Second, Sharif naively hoped that he would succeed in persuading Washington to rebuke India for its alleged support for the separatist rebels in the country's largest province of Balochistan and the Islamic insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Pakistani authorities submitted at least three dossiers to the United Nations to substantiate these allegations. The contents of these dossiers have not been publicized nor have they been leaked to the media to prove that India is actually involved in stirring unrest in Balochistan. Likewise, Sharif reiterated Pakistan's longstanding demand that the United States should intervene and offer a solution with India on the six-decade old Kashmir dispute. The Americans demonstrated no change in their existing position. There was no indication that Washington intended to get embroiled in a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers. The United States once again urged India and Pakistan to resolve their outstanding bilateral disputes through dialogue. This is not what Sharif wanted to hear. He had sought more American involvement than mere advice on bilateral conflict resolution.

Third, the Pakistanis take no American advice as demonizing and irritating than the call to "do more" in terms of fighting Islamic terrorism. They grumble that Washington does not amply appreciate their contributions in the fight against radical Islamist groups. No matter how many militants Pakistan eliminates, they complain, the Americans keep urging Pakistan to "do more".

During Sharif's visit, President Obama took the "do more" demand to a totally new level for which Sharif was utterly unprepared. Washington demanded of Islamabad to take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based terrorist group that operates in Kashmir and more recently in Afghanistan. The last time when Washington had asked Sharif to take action against the terrorists in Kashmir was in a meeting with President Bill Clinton in the summer of 1999, Sharif was overthrown within three months in a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. The military, which actually orchestrated and sponsored the Jihadist campaign in Kashmir now known as the Kargil conflict, looked at Sharif's decision to withdraw from there on American pressure as a 'sell-out' to his "American masters'.

It is excruciating to be a Pakistani prime minister visiting the United States to discuss issues beyond one's control in a country where the army, not the parliament led by the prime minister, determines the foreign policy. When Obama had looked at Sharif's homework, he must have chuckled and thought for a moment that the prime minister must have plagiarized his homework. He could not have been the actual author of the long list of achievements he had brought with him. There must have been a bunch of generals in Rawalpindi who wrote Sharif's talking points and sent him to Washington with an unrealistic list of demands. Poor Sharif is back home with almost no major achievements. He is returning with one such new tough American demand (i.e. action against the terrorist groups operating in Kashmir) that could cost him his office or even life.