WASHINGTON (TIP): Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif trooped into the White House on October 21 for a meeting with President Obama in the face of multiple repudiations from the United States over Islamabad’s pet peeves: Drone strikes on Pakistan, its gripes against India over the Kashmir issue, and pleas that Washington treat it on par with New Delhi by accepting it as a nuclear equal. The meeting with the U.S President was going on at the time of writing and there was no readout yet, but the Obama administration made it clear on Tuesday that it did not particularly share Pakistan’s perception on any of these issues, starting with its handwringing over drone attacks on its lawless territory, accentuated by a well-timed Amnesty report highlighting some civilian casualties.White House spokesman Jay Carney set the stage for a rejection of Pakistan’s plea to stop drone strikes, saying U.S counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful, and effective, and they in fact minimize civilian casualties that would be greater if other conventional means were adopted to eliminate terrorists.
“The United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute.We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with US values and US policy,” Carney said, adding, “Before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of active hostilities, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, and that is the highest standard we can set,” he said. However, both sides are expected to project language that will minimize differences on this subject, with Washington promising to ease off the strikes as more and more suspected terrorists are eliminated, and praising Pakistan’s fight against terrorism despite its dubious credentials on this count. The U.S media was already predicting the pitch would be taking spin, with a headline in one newspaper reading, ”drones? What drones? Obama and Pakistan’s Sharif to accentuate the positive.”
Various agreements, including one on science and technology cooperation, are being wheeled out to cover the tracks of disagreements, including over India’s role in Afghanistan, and more broadly the growing regional and global heft that Washington is helping New Delhi develop. Earlier this week, the Obama administration snubbed Sharif over his plea that Washington should mediate between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue, saying it was for the two sides to take care of this issue. In fact, despite the controversy over Sharif ’s reported putdown of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (that he brings his complaints against Pakistan to Washington), it is Pakistan that has kept up an incessant reference to India, making it very much part of its gripe list. The Obama administration has entertained this only in the sense of trying to wean Pakistan out of its New Delhi complex of constantly seeking parity with it.Washington, US officials indicated ahead of the meeting, wants to have strong ties with Pakistan on its own without sharing its prejudice against India. The White House has not scheduled a media interaction at the Obama-Sharif meeting, much less an extended news conference, fearful of awkward questions.
Even at a think-tank event on Tuesday, where Sharif made a speech, only the host former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley posed three softball question before closing the meeting, keeping audience out of it. But it is not hard to discern that Sharif has had a torrid visit so far. There have been protocol putdowns, including him being entertained by Secretary of State John Kerry for dinner after he arrived on Sunday (while Obama was out playing golf with White House staffers), cooling his heels on Monday and Tuesday while the Obama dealt with other issues, and on Wednesday, having to breakfast with vicepresident Joe Biden (who, according to the White House schedule, then proceeded to have lunch with Obama) before the U.S President deigned to see him in the afternoon. The charitable explanation for all this is the Sharif is Pakistan’s Prime Minister, not President, but that brings to attention the extraordinary deference Obama has shown to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Sharif also faced a rough time on the Hill on Tuesday when he was questioned closely by the House Foreign Relations Committee over the continued incarceration of Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the U.S nail Osama bin Laden, and Pakistan’s continued patronage of Lashkar-etaiba. “I specifically pressed the Prime Minister to release Dr. Shakil Afridi and encouraged him to ensure that his nation is in fact a responsible and effective partner in countering terrorism, proliferation and violent extremism in the region,” Committee chairman Ed Royce said later. His ranking colleague Eliot Engel was equally unsparing.