The US and Pakistan will hold their first strategic dialogue at the ministerial level in Washington DC on 24 March. The process of strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the US was launched in 2006, when US President George W Bush visited Pakistan. It was decided that under the 'strategic partnership' regular dialogue would be held - co-chaired by the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Pakistan's Foreign Secretary - to review issues of mutual interest. Commitments were made to move forward in the areas of economic growth and prosperity, energy, peace and security, social sector development, science and technology, democracy and non-proliferation. The significance of this meeting can be assessed from the fact that apart from the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and government officials, Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Kayani, will also be part of the delegation.
The main focus will be the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The US State Department's Mark Toner said: 'Obviously, we're talking about Afghanistan, the situation there, the spillover into the FATA and how to really better engage. And in fact, we've seen some successes on that front in recent weeks.'
However, no representative from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) or FATA areas is included in this critical strategic dialogue on FATA, terrorism and economic development. Even the Chairman of the standing committee on Foreign Affairs, Asfandyar Wali Khan, has been excluded. I suspect this may be because Wali represents Pushtuns, who have a somewhat different approach towards relations with India and Afghanistan.
The last round of talks was held in December 2007 between Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad. With General Musharaf in charge and handling matters personally, no substantial progress could be made on any agenda point except for routine discussions.
Now, with the change of administration in US and establishment of political (rather than military) governments in Pakistan, the scene has changed. The latest review of US Afghan policy and the outcome of the London conference on Afghanistan hon ave made this round of talks much more important. Consequently, the delegations on both sides are bigger and of higher stature than before. It is important to note that the recent US policy shift in Afghanistan towards reconciliation and mediation with the Taliban has opened a new window of opportunity for Pakistan. It is now up to Pakistan as to how it can maximize its gains and make good the losses which it has suffered so far.
But what are the two sides expecting from the dialogue? Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Halbrooke clearly explained the purpose of strategic dialogue during his briefing last Friday. He sees three core objectives: destroying al Qaeda, helping Afghans become self-reliant so that they can take care of their security, and strengthening Pakistan's ability to deal with its own security and development by strengthening democratic institutions. On the Pakistani side Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, while talking to the US ambassador, highlighted his conerns: power generation; water conservation; education; strengthening the law enforcement agencies' capacity through training and provision of equipment; fast-tracking the economic assistance committed through the Kerry Lugar Bill and under the Competitiveness Support Fund; and foreign military funding. Foreign minister Qureshi has further pointed out that economic and development issues must not be relegated to the back burner, thus hinting at Pakistan's core concerns.
The US is obviously going to focus on security issues, while Pakistan will try to draw maximum economic advantage out of the partnership. The potential danger is that Pakistan's desire for economic aid, while on the agenda, will be overshadowed by the security talks.
But there are security issues where the US needs Pakistani support. Destroying al Qaeda is not an easy task - it is an international organization with worldwide membership and influence. Can it be done by invading countries, changing regimes, killing or capturing top leadership, or imprisoning and torturing non-combatants in distant CIA prisons and bases? The strategy so far adopted has at best minimized al Qaeda's influence and activities but has failed to destroy them. What is now needed is to go beyond the norm and accept reality, piercing through prejudices and self-interest. We all know that the mission and demands of al Qaeda are neither political nor economic, but are rather merged with popular and legitimate demands which have great acceptability in the Muslim world. The best way to defeat the organization is to defeat their sense of purpose by resolving the issues which are being used to attract recruitment. These are genuine Muslim concerns which must be resolved. Visible progress, with clear road maps, not mere rhetoric, can help reduce the influence of extremist organizations and ultimately defeat them.
UN peacekeeping forces, which are acceptable to all the warring factions, should be involved. Muslim countries within the Organization of the Islamic Conference can contribute to bring peace to the region. Pakistan can also help in this regard and has already shown interest in training the Afghan National Army.
The Kerry Luger Bill has been criticized extensively within Pakistan so should not be the prime focus. Moreover, the Government is not likely to get any benefit out of it.