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Obama-Sharif summit: If daal, keema banter was the measure, an A+

October 25, 2013 04:30 IST

The meeting between United States President Barack Obama and the newly-elected but in his second-coming Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was essentially an exercise to repair the trust deficit and mutual suspicions between Washington and Islamabad.

On whether that was achieved, administration and diplomatic sources told that “the jury is still out on that score because it’s a no-brainer that evidently the military and the Inter Services Intelligence still call the shots.”

One source said the most clear example that Sharif had been unable to rein in the military and ISI for all his talk of a rapprochement with India and that improving relations with New Delhi was ‘my favourite subject’ were the continuing attacks against Indian personnel across the Line of Control by militants, undeniably proxies of the ISI, which evidently did not want any peace process to take hold between India and Pakistan.

But these sources acknowledged that if pleasantries and cordiality, not to mention Obama’s banter and nostalgia about daal and keema and his repeated congratulations on Sharif’s election, were the measure of this summit, it would receive a resounding A plus grade.

Longtime South Asia observers also told that both sides, but more so Pakistan, were obviously playing to their domestic audiences, with Sharif during the run-up to the summit calling for US mediation in Kashmir and condemning the US drone strikes in Pakistani territory, although he had not forcefully brought up these issues with Obama.

Obama had pre-empted any such plea by saying that he was glad Sharif was reaching out to India and hoped that a modus vivendi could be reached by both sides where their problems could be resolved bilaterally.

According to these observers, Obama’s call for Pakistan to take action against those responsible for the horrific 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai -- as Sharif revealed during a brief interaction with the Pakistani press accompanying him immediately after he emerged from his meeting with Obama -- was more a case of going through the motions and conveying India’s concerns which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had complained about during their meeting last month.

These observers said that when it came to “walking the walk” as opposed to “talking the talk,” despite New Delhi’s continuing entreaties the US pressure on Pakistan to bring these perpetrators, particularly those behind the conspiracy and planning, was found wanting, for all of the public declarations.

When the pool was ushered in to the Oval Office after both leaders had concluded their nearly two-hour meeting along with their respective delegations, Obama said kicked off his remarks with a surfeit of kudos, saying, ‘It’s a great pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Sharif to the Oval Office. He was reminding me that the last time he visited here was quite some time ago, and we’re glad to have him back after a historic election that took place in Pakistan

‘To see a peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another was an enormous milestone for Pakistan and a testimony to the Pakistani people’s desire for democracy. And so we are very glad to be able to partner with the people of Pakistan and the Pakistani government on a whole range of issues that are of common interest and common concern to us,’ he said.

As part of the effort -- superficial or otherwise that the US was intent to repair the tensions in the relationship -- Obama said, ‘At the outset, I emphasized that the US considers Pakistan to be a very important strategic partner. We believe that if Pakistan is secure and peaceful and prosperous, that's not only good for Pakistan, it’s good for the region and it’s good for the world. And we want to do everything that we can to help the Prime Minister as he moves forward on a bold agenda to achieve that vision.’

Sources acknowledged that much of the meeting, as Obama himself had noted, had centred on Pakistan’s economy and energy needs and Sharif’s requests for US investment and assistance to alleviate Pakistan out of its economic morass as this would be a panacea to eliminate terrorism and extremism.

Obama said, ‘We spent a lot of time talking about the economy. I know that the Prime Minister is very deeply concerned about making sure that the energy sector inside Pakistan is functioning efficiently and that industry and jobs and greater opportunity exists for all of the people of Pakistan and all regions of Pakistan. And we discussed how the United States could potentially be helpful on energy projects, on infrastructure projects.’

Besides continuing to combat terrorism, and working toward Afghanistan’s stability, particularly pending and post US troop withdrawal, Obama acknowledged that ‘we had an opportunity to discuss India, and the Prime Minister had the opportunity to meet with Indian Prime Minister Singh in New York.’

In this regard, Obama said, ‘I think he is taking a very wise path in exploring how decades of tension between India and Pakistan can be reduced, because, as he points out, billions of dollars have been spent on an arms race in response to these tensions and those resources could be much more profitably invested in education, social welfare programmes on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan, and would be good for the entire subcontinent, and good for the world.’

And then there was the President’s walk down memory lane, when he disclosed that ‘I shared with him that I had the opportunity, back in 1980 when I was a very young man, to visit Pakistan because I had two Pakistani roommates in college whose mothers taught me how to cook daal and keema, and other very good Pakistani food. And it was a wonderful trip for me, and created a great appreciation and a great love for the Pakistani people.’

Obama also pointed out that ‘Pakistani Americans here in the United States are enormous contributors to the growth and development of the United States, and so we have these strong people-to-people connections. And my hope is, is that despite what inevitably will be some tensions between our two countries and occasional misunderstandings between our two countries, that the fundamental goodwill that is shared between the Pakistani people and the American people, that that will be reflected in our governments’ relationships and that we will continue to make progress in the coming years.’

Pakistani Americans have also been major contributors to Obama’s campaign coffers and that of the Democratic Party.

Sharif, reading from a statement, said he had spelled out to Obama the priorities on his agenda, both domestic and in terms of foreign policy and with regard to India, said, ‘I told President Obama about my sincere commitment to build a cordial and cooperative relationship with India, and our efforts to peacefully resolve all our outstanding issues, including Kashmir.’

‘Terrorism constitutes a common threat. It is as much a concern to us as it is for India. We need to allay our respective concerns through serious and sincere efforts without indulging into any blame game.  I also assured the President that as a responsible nuclear state, Pakistan will continue to act with maximum restraint and work toward strengthening strategic stability in South Asia,’ he added.

Then to much laughter, Sharif in inviting Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama to Pakistan said, ‘keema and daal is waiting for you.’ 

In the joint statement issued after the meeting, the White House said, ‘The two leaders emphasised that no country's territory should be used to destabilise its neighbours. Further, the leaders noted that extremism and terrorism represent a common challenge for humanity and that the solution lies in collaboration and joint efforts by the international community.’

The statement also noted that ‘Obama thanked Sharif for Pakistan's efforts to help defeat Al Qaeda, and both leaders expressed their deep appreciation for the sacrifices of military personnel and civilians in the fight against terrorism and extremism.’

Emerging from the White House, Sharif told reporters -- in what one Pakistani journalist described as “in his colloquial Punjabi Urdu, which is nowhere near the pure Lucknow Urdu you guys are used to,” that ‘He (Obama) asked, why the trial of the (Mumbai) terrorist attack in India has not started yet.’

Sharif also acknowledged that Obama had raised the issue of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organization of the Lakshar-e-Tayiba,  cross border terrorism and Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who has been imprisoned for treason for tipped of the US intelligence to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden which led to the latter’s killing by an elite US SEALS team.

‘He (Obama) has raised the issue of Afridi. He spoke about cross-border movement. He also talked about Jamaat-ud-Dawa," Sharif said.

The Prime Minister also claimed that Pakistan-India relations had been discussed at length, including the Kashmir imbroglio, but when pressed refused to provide details when asked if he had asked for US mediation. He also did not provide any details of what Obama’s response was but quickly left with his senior aides.

Image: US President Barack Obama speaks with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington
Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC