ISLAMABAD — The latest Pak-US Strategic Dialogue held this week delivered little of real substance, although there were some surprises and the outcome was generally positive, analysts say.
The bilateral relationship is improving in breadth and scope, but key differences remain, most notably over Pakistan’s nuclear program.
The strategic dialogue included discussions on measures to reduce the risk of Indo-Pakistani conflict; recognition of the need for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute; preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery of technology; supporting the Afghan peace and reconciliation process; countering terrorism; as well as defense and security cooperation.
Yet despite the wide ranging statement released after the talks “there's really not much of substance," Brian Cloughley, analyst and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, said. Even so, he added, "It is generous of the US to pledge $250 million for ‘relief, recovery and rehabilitation of internally displaced persons from the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]’, and the tenor is generally positive.”
Cloughley was surprised that Kashmir was mentioned in the dialogue — a taboo subject for Washington due to Indian concerns.
“Before his election in 2008, Obama said he would welcome US involvement in seeking a solution, but he hasn't uttered a peep ever since, it being official US policy that it is a bilateral matter. Sure, there's no indication that there might be (as there should be) third-party (i.e. UN) mediation, but to even mention the word Kashmir is anathema to India," he said.
Claude Rakisits, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and an expert on Pakistani affairs, highlights this has come at a cost for Pakistan.
“In order to placate the Indians, the joint statement also reaffirmed [Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif's stated commitment to bring to justice the perpetrators of the January 2, 2016, attack on the Pathankot air base. So the pressure is on Pakistan to be seen to be tak[ing] action against those who were behind this terrorist act," he said.
“This point was reiterated yesterday by India's foreign secretary, who demanded this before bilateral talks could resume," Rakisits added.
However, Cloughley said ultimately the statement was “significant in a negative way that there's no mention of major equipment supply.”
Pakistan’s navy was expecting to acquire surplus US Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates to replace worn out ex-British warships as a stopgap measure before a more permanent solution can be found. There were also plans to supply Pakistan with eight GRC 43 cutters to patrol its exclusive economic zone.
Yet Congress has blocked the transfer of both and there appears to be no resolution in sight.
“Congress would never approve of transfer of more combat vessels and provision of the F-16s is still up in the air. Congress might well decide to flex its muscles in this regard, if for no other reason than to be disobliging to the White House," Cloughley said.
There has been a much-discussed push to sell eight new-build F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, although partial US funding for the jets has been opposed by US lawmakers.
Rakisits believes the F-16 deal may be pushed through, but this could be the extent of equipment sales due to the current political scene in the US.
“Given the encouraging and supportive words in the joint statement about Pakistan's constructive role in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group's activities in trying to find a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan, I believe objectively that the Obama administration should be able to push the sale of the F-16s through Congress," he said.
“However, having said that, Obama may still lose this legislative battle because of his weak foreign policy hand in general and the highly divided nature of Congress in this election year. Put differently, Pakistan may well be a collateral damage of domestic American politics," he added.
A notable difference between the two sides was over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Washington would like Pakistan to roll back and/or cap aspects of this, but Islamabad steadfastly refuses.
Foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, Sartaj Aziz, who led the Pakistani delegation, was clear no unilateral moves to curtail the program would be acceptable, adding that the program is dynamic in response to Indian military expansion/modernization.
In effect, neither side has room to maneuver on this issue.
“Given Obama's weak domestic and foreign policy hand, it is most unlikely that his administration would spend valuable political capital in recognizing de jure Pakistan as a nuclear power. It would be tantamount to Washington giving its blessing to Pakistan's nuclear deterrence program to counter India's conventional advantage," Rakisits said.
“This is not something that is about to happen when Washington is keen to build up a long-term strategic relationship with India in order to counter China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean region.”
Likewise, Mansoor Ahmed, Stanton Nuclear Security junior faculty fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School and an expert on Pakistan's nuclear deterrent and delivery systems, believes no Pakistani government will change the official position.
“Ostensibly, Pakistan has been entrapped by its own demand for nuclear mainstreaming and normalization which could not be achieved without a quid pro quo for the US which has already helped grant India a de facto nuclear weapon status through the [Nuclear Suppliers Group] and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] under the 2008 nuclear deal," he said.
“Pakistan cannot hope to secure any such deal without actually offering tangible concessions such as a capping of its battlefield nuclear weapons production; limits on ballistic missile ranges; and lifting of boycott on the [Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty], all of which would be politically suicidal for any government in Pakistan," Ahmed added.