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A Fresh Start For U.S.-Pakistani Relations?

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As President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meet in Washington today, American officials have struck a positive tone ahead of their talks. Secretary of State John Kerry informed reporters that the United States' relationship with Pakistan "could not be more important," while the White House described its ties with the country as "enormously valuable." Washington also announced that it will release more than $1.5 billion of economic and security assistance to Pakistan previously withheld by Congress after a series of crises escalated tensions between the two countries.

Despite the warm rhetoric and resumption of aid, profound challenges to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship persist. Although officials in both countries now assert that bilateral ties have notably improved in recent months after a precipitous breakdown just a year ago, fundamental disagreements between the two sides endure on several key issues.

From Pakistan's perspective, these disagreements focus on the administration's ongoing drone campaign targeting suspected terrorists in Pakistan. Islamabad sees the strikes as an egregious violation of its sovereignty and claim the strikes will only strengthen the forces of extremism ravaging the country.

Pakistan also believes it is entitled to more security assistance from the United States beyond the billions it has already received from Washington over the past decade. It feels that its role in combating terrorism in the region alongside the United States is unappreciated, and the enormous cost it has incurred in doing so undervalued.

The United States has a different view. While acknowledging the challenges associated with its drone strikes in Pakistan, the Obama administration has relied almost exclusively upon them to degrade the leadership al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region. The United States has not indicated any plans to stop, or even significantly curtail, its use of drones in the near future.

More troubling to Washington is Pakistan's continuing sanctuary and support for militant groups like the Haqqani network who have regularly launched attacks against American targets in Afghanistan. It is widely believed that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has actively trained these militant groups in Pakistan and helped orchestrate attacks against American troops across the border. This troubling nexus prompted Admiral Mike Mullen to describe the Haqqani network as a "veritable arm" of the ISI in 2011 during his tenure as the country's top military officer. Pakistan's purported complicity in this regard prompted Congress to suspend some of the aid to Islamabad as a result.

The impending withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan has also exposed major differences between the United States and Pakistan. Although Washington and Islamabad are both concerned about Afghanistan's impact on regional security following the withdrawal, they are concerned for different reasons. The United States is primarily focused on preventing the resurgence of the Taliban and ensuring that Afghanistan cannot ever be used again as a base to launch future attacks against it or its allies. Pakistan, in contrast, has adopted a more ambivalent posture towards the Taliban and is more focused on limiting India's influence in Afghanistan once the United States withdraws.

Although these issues, along with a host of others, will feature prominently on today's agenda between President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif, they are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Given the history of Washington's foreign relations with Islamabad, however, this is not surprising. U.S.-Pakistani ties have traditionally been characterized by endemic mistrust, persistent turbulence, and a litany of grievances both past and present. It is difficult to overstate the degree of mutual suspicion underlying the relationship, suspicion which reached its apex in the aftermath of the US raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. As a result, the trajectory of bilateral ties has been erratic and uneven--with crisis rather than cooperation defining the contours and character of the relationship.

For these reasons, expectations surrounding President Obama's talks with Prime Minister Sharif are modest at best. Despite the optimism both sides have projected ahead of the meeting, the question that naturally arises is whether the current thaw in U.S.-Pakistani relations is an upswing in ties that will once again prove to be short-lived, or a genuine new beginning portending a more secure relationship for the future.

Some are hopeful that the newly elected Sharif -- back in office for an unprecedented third term -- can work together with President Obama to put the U.S.-Pakistani relationship on more stable footing. Unequivocally ending Pakistan's support for terrorism and playing a constructive role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan ahead of the American withdrawal are necessary first steps for Sharif to take toward this end. The Obama administration should continue encouraging Pakistan's political and economic development and begin formulating a policy toward the country that looks beyond the narrow prisms of Afghanistan and counterterrorism. By doing so, the two countries can begin laying the foundation of a partnership based on converging rather than competing interests.

Whether both countries can do so remains to be seen. What is certain is that both President Obama and Prime Minister Sharif will have their work cut out for them when they meet later today.