US, Pakistan Face Challenges to Keep Relations Steady

June 13,2013

U.S.-Pakistan relations have seen many ups-and-downs in recent years. With a new government in place in Pakistan, both countries will face challenges to keep relations steady. There are challenges, especially the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, which could become a major bone of contention.

Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said in his first speech to Parliament that he would end U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Later, the new government summoned a top U.S. diplomat to protest a recent U.S. drone strike.

This signals that stopping the drone strikes is going to be one of the top priorities of Nawaz Sharif’s government. How will this be viewed in Washington?

Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Bill Milam was the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan in 1999 when Sharif’s government was toppled in a military coup.

"I think that Prime Minister Sharif would be ill advised to make it a big issue when there are so many others on his plate, including the economy," he stated. "Including his relations with the military, and I could name a number of others.

While the United States considers using drones an effective tactic to take out dangerous al-Qaida and Taliban operatives allegedly enjoying safe havens in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, Pakistan said these strikes are a violation of its sovereignty.

Some analysts said Pakistan’s concerns are not misplaced but that it will have to work with the United States to solve this issue.

"I think, if anything, to give Nawaz Sharif the benefit of the doubt, would be that he might come out very loudly opposing the strikes but at the same time having a conversation with the U.S. government about how to handle this," said Daniel Markey, of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It’s not a simple problem.

He also thinks that the two countries should now focus more on ways to help Pakistan’s fragile economy.

"The United States could in fact do better on the trade front with Pakistan. It could provide favorable access to Pakistani goods, particularly textiles, into U.S. markets. This is something that would really benefit Pakistan," noted Markey.

In recent years, relations between Pakistan and the United States suffered from a serious trust defict. The operation to kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan without letting Pakistani authorities know highlighted this lack of trust. Ambassador Milam said both sides should work to rebuild that trust.

"All we can do on both sides is to be open and honest and transparent as possible. We can work together, and that’s important because Pakistan is important to us in national security terms," Milam said.

With 2014 looming, Washington will need Islamabad's help to safely exit Afghanistan, while Pakistan will need U.S. help to overcome economic and energy challenges. This kind of mutual cooperation will require some creative thinking in the two capitals so that future relations are better than their recent past relationship.