America's sometimes rocky relations with Pakistan were the focus of a meeting Wednesday at the White House between newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Barack Obama.
Pakistan has been and remains an important country to the United States. It has a population of 180 million; borders with Afghanistan, China, India and Iran; nuclear weapons and technology, which it sometimes exports; and a perpetually volatile internal situation.
The government of Mr. Sharif, a veteran politician, is in place due to a successful transition after election from a previous civilian administration, a precedent for a Pakistan which has experienced military coups d'etat as a common means of changing governments. Potentially explosive creases in the Pakistani body politic, in addition to civilian-military relations, include intra-military issues and fractious, potentially separatist-oriented activity in certain regions. One particular hot point is the province of Balochistan and its northwest border area with war-torn Afghanistan.
The United States has valued for some time Pakistan's close relationship with China as a separate, nonbilateral channel to that country. Pakistan's handling of its nuclear technology is a problem for the United States in pursuit of nonproliferation to states such as Iran and North Korea. India, Israel and Pakistan are the only declared or apparent nuclear powers which have not signed the nonproliferation treaty.
The main current U.S. concern over developments in Pakistan turns on the situation in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of U.S. forces and equipment from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, would take place most efficiently through Pakistan.
The Pakistanis see the process, in part, as a money-maker and a pressure point. The Taliban, the principal challenger to the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul, operates in both countries. Negotiations of an eventual resolution of the Afghanistan War will inevitably involve Pakistan.
The most painful aspect of U.S.-Pakistani relations is the question of America's use of drones to kill Taliban and other purported enemies on Pakistani territory. Pakistani politicians, including Mr. Sharif, condemn the practice, which has killed scores of civilians and caused outrage throughout Pakistan. Media reports document that Pakistani authorities are aware of and authorize the attacks.
The United States released another $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan just prior to Mr. Sharif's visit. Pakistan will remain a difficult, if necessary, partner for the United States as long as America stays in Afghanistan and seeks to be a player in that region. For now, in that context, current U.S. policy is necessary and correct. It will nonetheless require review in early 2015, after the Afghanistan exit has been completed.
Pakistan will be a difficult, if necessary, partner for the United States as long as America stays in Afghanistan.