On July 31, following several false starts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistan's political and military leadership. And while the visit comes at a turbulent time for Pakistan -- on the heels of a massive jail break in Dera Ismail Khan that saw more than 300 prisoners escape, including at least 25 members of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group -- it also comes at a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations have been remarkably cordial.
Pakistan's May election, in which the country completed its first democratic transfer of power, appears to have put both capitals in a good mood. Shortly after his electoral triumph, Nawaz Sharif received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. Since then, Washington has announced new investments in Pakistan's troubled energy sector, and Sharif has responded by promising to help facilitate America's withdrawal from Afghanistan and by vowing to cooperate on counterterrorism.
The goodwill has lasted since then, allowing for the resurrection of several moribund cooperative initiatives between Washington and Islamabad. For example, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has stated his desire to re-launch the Strategic Dialogue -- broad-based talks on non-security issues that have been grounded for several years. Meanwhile, on July 16, Pakistan's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, indicated that talks will soon resume on a bilateral investment treaty between the two countries. These negotiations have occurred fitfully since 2005, but hit snags in more recent years.
Today represents a far cry from 2011, when CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani civilians, when U.S. forces raided Osama Bin Laden's compound without giving Pakistan advance notice, and when NATO aircraft accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Reprisals and angry rhetoric ensued on both sides. Islamabad shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen -- then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- famously referred to the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network as a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's spy network.
Relations remained tense into 2012, when then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta openly called for a greater Indian role in Afghanistan -- a message that surely infuriated Pakistan's security establishment, which wants no Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Today, Washington and Islamabad are not one-upping each other with retaliatory acts, and the charged rhetoric has been toned down. Instead of lambasting Pakistan for what it doesn't do --such as launching a military offensive in North Waziristan -- Washington is commending Pakistan for what it does do. In May, for example, a Pentagon official praised Pakistan for adopting new measures that prevent fertilizers produced domestically from being used as bombs in Afghanistan. The two sides are even seeing eye-to-eye on the war in Afghanistan; both want to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
Given these developments, does Kerry's trip to Pakistan herald a new era of warm relations for the two reluctant allies? Don't bet on it. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan may be in better shape than it was several years ago, but it remains troubled -- and could easily plunge back into crisis.
One source of brewing tension is Islamabad's interest in opening peace talks with the TTP, which is waging a brutal and unyielding insurgency against the Pakistani state -- one that targets civilians, the government, and the military alike. Sharif campaigned heavily on the issue of talks, so his resounding electoral victory gives him a strong mandate to pursue negotiations. Since taking office, his government has floated the idea of launching a "working group" to explore talks -- even as the TTP has declared its unwillingness to negotiate and continued to stage attacks. Likewise, the new provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- near Pakistan's tribal belt -- is led by a party sharing the PML-N's desire to talk to the TTP.
For Washington, the fear is that a peace agreement between Islamabad and the TTP would merely appease a terrorist organization that has never respected such agreements previously. Back in early 2009, for example, after concluding peace deals with Islamabad, the TTP seized control of the picturesque region of Swat -- a mere 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The group violently enforced a harsh form of Sharia law until the military recaptured the region several months later. This time around, the fear is that instead of laying down its arms, the TTP could again use a ceasefire to regroup -- and then carve out new areas of control that enable it to intensify its campaign of attacks on NATO supply vehicles.