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Drones? What drones? Obama and Pakistan’s Sharif to accentuate the positive

Obama hosts Nawaz Sharif Wednesday, and with the often-rocky US-Pakistani marriage now in kiss-and-make-up mode, the leaders are expected to emphasize issues that unite, rather than divide (drones).

The US-Pakistan relationship has long been compared to a bad marriage, with demands for a divorce swelling on both sides after the Osama bin Laden raid and deadly attack by US forces on Pakistani border guards, both in 2011.

But when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets with President Obama Wednesday, the kiss-and-make-up visit to the Oval Office will underscore how divorce is off the table – and how each side hopes to proceed to make the relationship work.

The plan appears to be a common one for saving rocky relationships: emphasize common interests and play up the good points about each other.

No one thinks the problems that took relations to the brink are solved: the US continues to launch drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, though in lesser numbers, and Pakistan, seeking to preserve its influence in next-door neighbor Afghanistan, continues to harbor Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

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But the Obama-Sharif meeting will mark a new phase in the relationship where each side is willing to downplay the areas of disagreement – such as drone policy – in favor of emphasizing common interests and a determination to leave the stormy path of the past behind, some South Asia experts say.

“I’m very skeptical that either side is prepared for a fundamental reassessment [of the relationship] at this point,” says Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center and a Pakistan specialist.

Calling significant changes unlikely as long as American forces remain in large numbers in Afghanistan, Mr. Hathaway says that, instead, he expects Mr. Obama and Mr. Sharif to focus on issues of importance to both sides and where both agree, such as Pakistan’s economic growth and peace and stability in Afghanistan.   

“What the two leaders really need to do is figure out how to move forward in the areas where they do have common interests – and there are a number of common interests – while simultaneously not allowing their differences on issues like drones to sour the entire relationship,” he says.

For some Pakistani experts, a common interest in the stability of one of the world’s nuclear powers is driving the rapprochement between the two counties.

“The main interest that both countries have in common … is stability,” says Khurram Husain, a Pakistani economics specialist and currently a Wilson Center scholar. “I don’t think anybody in the US wants to contemplate the prospect of a nuclear country sinking into the kind of instability that we’ve been seeing happen across the Middle East for instance.”

The Obama administration has taken two key steps recently to demonstrate a desire to work with Pakistan on strengthening its economic and political stability.

On the eve of Sharif’s arrival in the US Sunday, senior US officials disclosed that the administration intends to release $1.6 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan that was frozen after relations hit rock bottom in 2011. In addition to the military and economic assistance is some compensation for counterterrorism expenses that the US pledged to cover in the past.

In August, Secretary of State John Kerry used a three-day visit to Pakistan to announce the revival of a fledgling “strategic dialogue” between the two countries that was launched in 2010 but which, like aid, was suspended after the 2011 collapse in relations.

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Speaking in Islamabad, Secretary Kerry said the US wanted a “deeper, broader, more comprehensive relationship” with Pakistan than one solely focused on security issues.

Obama plans to continue that theme when he meets with Sharif, administration officials say. In particular, the president wants to emphasize the progress the US sees in Pakistan as exemplified by Sharif’s election in May, which constituted the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another in Pakistan’s history.

Sharif visited Washington in 1999 during an earlier stint as prime minister, but was overthrown by a military coup shortly after returning to Pakistan. Despite that history, Sharif has signaled since his election a defiant stance toward Pakistan’s formidable army, declining to name foreign and defense ministers and holding onto portfolios long controlled by the military.

For his part, Sharif is also intent on demonstrating how the two countries are on the path to a more mature relationship rather than one dominated by Pakistan’s dependence on the US. In meetings with business leaders and US officials, for example, Sharif is emphasizing his interest in “trade not aid” for growing the Pakistani economy and creating jobs for a burgeoning – and volatile – youth population.

In essence, Sharif would like to see the US, already Pakistan’s number-one trading partner, open its doors wider to Pakistani goods.

The Oval Office meeting is certain to address the prickly issue of the Afghan insurgency and its continuing ability to cross over from havens in Pakistan to attack both Afghan security forces and Afghan officials, as well as US and other NATO forces.

But a meeting focused on Pakistan’s stability will also have to address Pakistan’s domestic insurgency and the daily violence that threatens to undermine what progress the country has made. Sharif will explain to Obama his electoral pledge to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban, some analysts say, adding that it’s a plan that is likely to shift to a harder response once those talks inevitably fail.

“I think there is a wide recognition [in Washington] that the Nawaz Sharif government … needs to be seen by the Pakistani people to be making a good faith effort to negotiate with the Taliban,” Wilson’s Hathaway says. “Then if as most people expect” those efforts fail, he adds, “the Sharif government will be much more politically strengthened to embrace a stronger approach towards Jihadists and the Pakistan Taliban.”