WASHINGTON, March 24: The United States and Pakistan pledged on Wednesday to boost and broaden their relationship although the media in both countries continued to express mistrust and suspicion about each other.
Yet both sides indicated that their strategic dialogue, which began in Washington on Wednesday, would produce several signed agreements, from building dams and roads to power projects and security commitments.
At a joint appearance before the media with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the two countries were beginning a new chapter in relations.
“It is the start of something new,” said Mrs Clinton as two days of meetings got under way.
“Our countries have had our misunderstandings and disagreements in the past and there are sure to be more disagreements in the future.”
But the influential Washington Post newspaper reminded her that those suspicions were not a thing of the past.
It urged the Obama administration not to give in to Pakistan’s “lengthy laundry list” of demands and reject Islamabad’s requests for nuclear power plants and for US help in restarting the dialogue process with India.
The Pakistani media, on the other hand, continued to express suspicions about US claims of a long-term commitment to Islamabad. Several major Pakistan television channels also expressed indignation with Washington’s refusal to help resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Apparently, this forced Mr Qureshi to mention the Kashmir issue in his speech, urging the US to “constructively engage” in the process of its peaceful resolution with India.
“Pakistan seeks peaceful resolution to all issues in South Asia, including Kashmir,” he said. “We hope the US will maintain its constructive engagement to encourage this process.”
But at a Tuesday evening briefing at the Pakistan Embassy, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke once again refused to take “the K word” when asked what the US could do to help resolve the Kashmir dispute.
He insisted that these talks were not about India-Pakistan relations. Mr Qureshi also sought “non-discriminatory” access to energy, an apparent reference to nuclear cooperation that Pakistan is seeking with the US on the lines of the Indo-US atomic deal.
Secretary Clinton, however, has already made it clear that Pakistan should not expect such a deal, at least not in the near future.
The Pakistanis, however, are hoping that the Americans will somehow indicate a willingness to ultimately recognise their nuclear programme and thus ease international pressure on Islamabad on this issue.
But observers warn that this too may not happen soon.
Yet the Pakistanis will not return home empty handed. The US will sign two agreements during or at the end of the strategic dialogue, one for adding 400 MW to the country’s current capacity of producing electricity. The other would help enhance Pakistan’s depleting water resources.
Pakistani officials, however, expect more.
“These two agreements could have been signed quietly in Islamabad. They would not have created so much hype for this,” said one official.
One indication of what more the US could do came from Under-Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero who said at a State Department briefing on the occasion of the World Water Day that the US would engage Pakistan and India to help resolve tensions over the distribution of water between the two countries.
Mr Holbrooke also said that “some specific announcements” would be made after the dialogue but said he could not disclose them yet.
The talks, he said, were not about those specific announcements either.
“We want a productive partnership with Pakistan,” said the US envoy while explaining what the talks were about.
Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir also said that Pakistan was not “seeking a donor-recipient relationship” with the United States and instead wanted a long-term, broad-based partnership.
Mr Holbrooke said that US relations with Pakistan would no longer be tied to Islamabad’s neighbours. “We realise that Pakistan is an important country on its own.”
At the opening ceremony on Wednesday, both sides showed a new spirit of camaraderie. Instead of facing each other across the table, Pakistani and US officials sat side-by-side to show that they were not confronting each other.
Foreign Minister Qureshi declared that an improved relationship between the two countries “is good for Pakistan, good for America and good for international peace, security and prosperity”.
He underlined the importance of Pakistan in the fight against extremism as he pitched for enhanced partnership with the US on a whole range of issues, including energy.
Earlier, Secretary Clinton said the US would help Pakistan in all issues, including meeting urgent energy needs.
While vowing to improve bilateral ties, she and Mr Qureshi said one way to do so would be to expand the security focus to include energy development, education and agriculture. They said all must be addressed to win the war on violent extremism.
Neither Mrs Clinton nor Mr Qureshi outlined specific programmes, but Pakistan has put energy, including civilian nuclear power, at the top of its list of priorities.
Pointing to Pakistan’s growing action against extremism, Secretary Clinton pledged full support, saying, “Its struggles are our struggles”.
But she acknowledged that the two nations “have had our misunderstandings and disagreements in the past”.
“There are sure to be more disagreements in the future, as there are between any friends or, frankly, any family members,” she said.
“But this is a new day. For the past year, the Obama administration has shown in our words and deeds a different approach and attitude towards Pakistan.”
Mr Qureshi also looked for improved ties with Washington. “Now is the time to look forward,” he said.
On Wednesday, the United States agreed to provide $125 million for energy development in Pakistan. You can't buy friends in the Middle East, but you surely can make enemies. In the case of Israel, the Obama administration appears to be alienating our only Middle Eastern friend.