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Commentary: Don't forget about Pakistan

While much of the world was focused on the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, a visit to the United States by General Raheel Sharif of Pakistan had largely gone under the radar. This makes the second high-ranking official to visit Washington in the past month as Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no-relation) had visited just three weeks prior.  The importance of these meetings shouldn’t be overlooked as U.S. concerns with Pakistan’s nuclear capability, its fight against terrorism, and hostilities with India still remain flash points. What is interesting about the two visits though, is not only the nature of them, but the perceived goals from both.  

Let’s start with a recap of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit. Sharif’s visit was largely predicated on the continuing volatility in the security situation in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, and its relations with India. Much to the dismay of some Pakistanis, no civil nuclear deal was discussed between Pakistan and the U.S., even though Pakistan has always sought a deal similar to the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal. However, there was emphasis on measures to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into terrorist hands.  A joint statement from Sharif and President Obama stressed that improvement in Pakistan-India bilateral relations would improve prospects for lasting peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. Sharif also reaffirmed that Pakistan’s territory will not be used by terrorists against any other country. While those statements are great and all, it constitutes nothing more than a business as usual statement.  

What provided to be particularly interesting was Sharif’s promised action against all terrorist networks including the Haqqani Network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is a first for Pakistan. LeT is of particular concern to India, as LeT was charged with planning and executing the gruesome terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. Seemingly this one statement could have great aspirations in India-Pakistan relations and security in the Af-Pak region.  Unfortunately, the U.S. should remain skeptical of such an optimistic goal for two reasons. First, the very next day, Prime Minister Sharif remarked that Pakistan “cannot bring the Taliban to the table and kill them at the same time.” Since Pakistan has asserted its desire to resume peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it largely means no crackdown on either Haqqani or LeT will likely occur. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the prime minister essentially concedes much of his power to General Raheel Sharif and the military.  Since 1947 when Pakistan gained independence, its government has mostly been ruled by the military with some civilian governance sprinkled in here and there. When Pakistan has been ruled by a civilian government, the military almost always wielded greater power and this is still the case today.  

So where does that leave us? The U.S. appears clear that its South Asia policy involves an approach involving India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in its search for stability and peace, as well as the fact that Pakistan is an important partner in the fight against global terrorism. This means that the U.S. should pressure Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif into upholding the statement on cracking down on all terrorist networks, including Haqqani and LeT.  One option could be to create pre-requisites to acquiring aid. Since 2002, the U.S. has provided Pakistan with $7.6 billion in security-related assistance and another $10.5 billion in economic assistance, but now the U.S. has the ever so slightest leverage to pressure Pakistan into conceding in certain areas. Historically, Pakistan has only taken up arms against those militants who have turned against the state and whom its military and intelligence agencies cannot bring back into the fold. This should immediately cease to remain the case.  

In addition, the U.S. should support Pakistan in its aim to mediate Taliban peace talks, but remain cautious in doing so. Clearly the decision to increase and extend the deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan earlier this year proves the Taliban cannot be dealt with just militarily. When the last peace talks dissolved, it wasn’t due to inabilities on Pakistan’s behalf, rather it was due to the revelation that longtime Taliban chief Mullah Omar had died two years ago. Pakistan offers a unique opportunity to bring the Taliban to the table with its past ties to the insurgents and seemingly is willing to facilitate a reconciliation process.