The Debate

Can John Kerry Salvage US-Pakistan Relations?

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The Debate

Can John Kerry Salvage US-Pakistan Relations?

The US secretary of state has finally arrived in Islamabad. Will Kerry’s personal history with Pakistan be a silver bullet?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has finally arrived in Pakistan, the State Department announced today.

Kerry has long planned to visit Pakistan but had his trip delayed on a number of occasions. Word of an upcoming trip to Pakistan was first reported in the middle of June but Kerry later had to cancel, ostensibly to focus on Syria.

Many suspected, however, that the trip had been cancelled because the Pakistani side had leaked the dates and there were concerns about his security. Others speculated that the Obama administration had cancelled the trip to voice its displeasure over Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s vocal opposition to U.S. drone strikes.

At the time a Pakistani official was quoted as saying that the trip would be rescheduled for the first half of July. 

This never materialized. Talk of an upcoming Kerry visit began to pick up last week, which again forced Kerry to postpone his trip that was set to begin on Sunday after his itinerary leaked to Pakistani media outlets.

Nonetheless, there is a general sense of optimism in Islamabad about Secretary Kerry’s visit. The former Massachusetts Senator’s appointment was viewed very favorably in Pakistan because of his long-standing ties to the country. During President Obama’s first term in office Kerry sometimes served as an unofficial envoy to Pakistan’s leaders, many of whom were often at odds with the appointed officials Obama had put in charge of managing relations. He also teamed up with former Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) on a bill that set out a long-term civilian and economic aid package to Pakistan, areas that had previously taken a backseat to military assistance.

Still, U.S.-Pakistani relations deteriorated substantially during the Obama administration’s first term, as a result of general mistrust as well as a series of specific events like the bin Laden raid and the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani border troops by NATO forces in 2011.  

Pakistani officials seem to hope that Kerry’s history with Pakistan can be used to place ties on a more solid footing.

Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, for example, said that Islamabad hopes that the two sides can agree to re-establish a strategic dialogue that was ended following the border incident two years ago.

Meanwhile, Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Development gave a “wide-ranging interview” with Voice of America last week in which he said that the Sharif administration seeks strong ties to the U.S. particularly in the areas of energy and economics, two of the most pressing challenges that the new administration faces.

When Voice of America asked about Sharif beginning his administration by strengthening ties with China, Iqbal replied, “There are some areas in which cooperation of U.S. is not substitutable.” He went on to list America’s comparative advantages as an export market for Pakistani textiles and as a place for Pakistanis to attend colleges as among these areas.

Still, there are lingering sources of tension in the relationship based on history and substantive disagreements. For example, Pakistan continues to insist on a civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. in the mold of the U.S.-Indian nuclear pact, which is likely to be a non-starter for the Americans. The U.S. has also ruled out any talk of a possible prisoner swap agreement, while Islamabad has said it will push Kerry to end drone strikes inside Pakistan, which have continued despite Sharif’s objections, albeit with much lesser frequency.

So how likely is it that Kerry’s personal history with Pakistan will help the two frenemies overcome historical mistrust and substantive dispute?

Not very, says Shamila Chaudhary, an expert on Pakistani-U.S. relations formerly at Eurasia Group and, as of tomorrow, a senior advisor to Vali Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In an email interview with The Diplomat last month Chaudhary said, “The political transition underway in Pakistan does afford the United States an opportunity to reset the difficult relationship. However, the sources of tensions between both sides have been less personality-based and more having to do with policy disagreements.”

Chaundhary—who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. National Security Council and State Department during Obama’s first term— does not see Kerry’s long-standing ties to Pakistan as a silver bullet for improving relations. “Pakistan will appreciate the fact that Secretary Kerry is intimately familiar with the country and challenges associated with its relationship with the United States.” Ms Chaudhary acknowledged, “However, his involvement as a Senator and also an unofficial envoy was one step removed from where he now is in terms of representing President Obama’s policy on Pakistan. As an unofficial envoy, Kerry was able to finesse tensions caused by other government officials and policies. As Secretary of State, this just becomes more complicated.”

She further noted that the U.S. and Pakistan have been able to stabilize their relations in recent months, and believes the two sides will now focus on mapping out their post-2014 relationship.

“I suspect Kerry views this as the beginning of a broader conversation with Pakistan about where the bilateral relationship will go post-2014 and not just on security issues but on economic and development goals as well – areas that are important to him personally,” Chaundhary said.