Nawaz Sharif in Washington

Print edition : December 19, 1998

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presents his woes, but the U.S. tries hard not to meet "excessive expectations".

HAD NOT a team of spin doctors camped in Washington for several days before Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's arrival in the U.S. capital on December 1, the Pakistani, Indian and American media would have reacted in a different manner to the visit. Sharif may have returned home convinced that his two-day "working visit" to the United States was a success. But now, considering the hype generated by the spin-meisters on the objectives of Sharif's mission, he seems to have fallen short of expectations.

Given the political compulsions back home and Pakistan's obsession with a single-point foreign policy agenda, there was no doubt that Sharif would zero in on Kashmir and go to town with it. In a way he achieved his objective to this extent, but his hosts acted with restraint. From the beginning, senior officials of the Clinton administration advised the Washington media not to be taken in by "excessive expectations". In the end, the same officials made the point that there had been no change in U.S. foreign policy on either Kashmir or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

At the White House and elsewhere there was a repetition of the standard argument of the last several years - that the Kashmir dispute is one that India and Pakistan should sort out between themselves by taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. True to fashion, President Bill Clinton once again tried to convey the impression that he was a keen negotiator between nations and political sides. He said that he would love to get involved in the dispute between India and Pakistan, but in the same breath he pointed out that it would be futile if the U.S. mediated without an invitation from both parties. As India has remained steadfast in refusing any U.S. mediation on Kashmir, it was obvious to all that Sharif's attempts to wear down his hosts were in vain.

Nevertheless, Nawaz Sharif deserves to be congratulated on his persistence. Posing as a "man of peace", he made the point on more than one occasion that India and Pakistan did not have a record of sorting out contentious bilateral issues between themselves and that there was hence a need for third-party mediation by the U.S. or any other country or international organisation. Pakistan's spin-meisters even contended that the 1972 Shimla Agreement was the result of third-party nudging.

There was high drama during Sharif's address to the National Press Club. Injecting a new condition on bringing Islamabad on board with regard to the CTBT, he said that among other things the issue of Kashmir had to be "meaningfully addressed". The Clinton administration said candidly that it understood the political compulsions of a leader.

As Washington sees it, the bottom line made clear in Sharif's address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, when he said that Pakistan would accede to the CTBT by the 1999 deadline. Sharif decided to up the ante at the National Press Club. The simple objective of his "new" condition was to encourage mediation by the Clinton administration and put pressure on India. But his position cut no ice. Sharif contends that Islamabad would continue to give political, diplomatic and moral support to Kashmiris and yet there is no question of Islamabad supporting terrorists there.

There are two ways of looking at Sharif's visit to the U.S. It is tempting from the Indian point of view to see the whole visit as a damp squib, given the Clinton administration's blunt answers on different aspects of the ongoing dialogue, including the CTBT, Pakistan's economy, Afghanistan and terrorism, particularly in relation to Osama bin Laden. Although the U.S. expressed concern about the Taliban, it did not ask Sharif to make a clean break with the fundamentalist organisation.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Bill Clinton in Washington on December 2.-GREG GIBSON / AP

One view is that Washington extracted an unspecified commitment from Sharif to help the U.S. bring Osama bin Laden to justice. On repeated questioning Sharif gave non-committal answers about having cooperated with the U.S. consistently on the terrorism front.

Another perception is that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund did some plain talking to Sharif on economics. If Sharif had any illusions that weapons would continue to flow to Pakistan, a Cold War "strategic ally" of the U.S., he was mistaken. He got instead a lecture on getting Pakistan's economy in order.

Sharif was also told bluntly that he would have to help "himself" if Pakistan was looking to escape the punitive measures imposed by the U.S. beyond the sanctions under the Glenn Amendment. Although the Pakistani leader repeatedly stressed that all coercive measures against his country must be removed before it signs the CTBT, he was told plainly that unless there was progress on the nuclear non-proliferation and security agenda in Pakistan the Clinton administration could not make a compelling case in the U.S. Congress.

The second and more charitable view of Sharif's visit and talks is that the Clinton administration gained nothing by way of a specific commitment on the non-proliferation front. The point made is that Sharif did not sign the CTBT during his visit. However, the counter-view is that Sharif had not been expected to sign the CTBT and even if he had, no one could predict the political implications of his actions back home in Pakistan.

SHARIF'S singular achievement of the trip is the so-called deal over the 28 F-16 fighters that Pakistan had bought from the U.S. for $658 million. The U.S. had not sent the planes to Pakistan, nor had it returned the entire money. Even before Sharif landed at Andrews Air Force Base, there were reports that New Zealand had offered to lease the F-16s for 10 years at $105 million. But at the end of Sharif's visit, the details of the deal with New Zealand were not clear - whether it was an offer of lease, outright purchase or lease with an option to buy, and how the money was going to be reimbursed to Pakistan.

While several questions remain with regard to the F-16 deal, the Clinton administration is glad that the issue is out of the way. For Washington has tried at least for two years to get "rid" of these jets, stationed in Arizona, but its efforts - be it with respect to Taiwan, the Philippines or Indonesia - fell flat for one reason or the other.

Of the $658 million taken from Pakistan over the years, the U.S. has reimbursed only about $157 million. Islamabad had "threatened" to take legal action against the U.S., and the statute of limitations will run out by January 1999. During his visit, Nawaz Sharif was told that while the U.S. was keen on settling the dispute, a court battle would not be good for bilateral relations.

From Pakistan's point of view, Sharif's visit to Washington has had its uses even though sections of the Pakistani media have been critical of the gains of the visit. The small protests outside the White House on December 2 - an amusing sideshow for journalists from the subcontinent who cannot even consider them as "protests" - did not really rattle Sharif. The question being asked is whether Sharif achieved anything by going to Washington that he could not have achieved sitting in Islamabad.

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