If grades were handed out for particular events in international relations, the recently concluded strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the US would get a B+. Public relations disasters were avoided, the smiles were wide, the handshakes warm and the two countries appeared to be reaching closer to that ever-elusive goal of understanding one another.
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So is the strategic dialogue itself a good idea? Yes. But perhaps Pakistan needs to adapt its approach in future rounds of the dialogue to make them more result-oriented. First, the 56-page ‘wish list’ that the Pakistani government sent the US ahead of the dialogue was not the best idea. While the strategic dialogue is in fact meant to broaden the range of issues on which cooperation between the US and Pakistan is possible, putting too many things on the table simultaneously risks diluting the focus of both sides.

Second, Pakistani officials must be careful to avoid building up hype domestically over demands that the Americans are likely to balk at. The possibility of Pakistan getting an India-style civil-nuclear deal any time soon is remote. If it was difficult during the Bush administration because it was tilted towards India, it may be even more difficult now and for a very different reason: the Obama administration has generally been keen to tighten the global proliferation regime, meaning that a sweetheart deal for Pakistan like the one India got is very unlikely. Of course, it is in Pakistan’s interests to get such a deal, and the government should keep reminding the Americans of Pakistan’s needs. However, domestic hype over this issue could threaten to overshadow other gains that are made and that must not be allowed to happen. The strategic dialogue is meant to be a process, so while one eye should be kept on distant desirables the focus on medium-term gains should not be lost.

For the rest, Pakistan must continue to build on at least one excellent thing it has done: articulate forthrightly what its security interests in the region are. No doubt, much of the recent American softening has to do with Pakistan’s substantial gains in the war against militancy, but there is also a sense that the two sides have stopped talking past each other and are increasingly talking to each other. Pakistan has spelled out what it wants in Afghanistan, what it wants from India and what it wants global powers to help Pakistan with. This is good. What isn’t good — from a democratic perspective — is that the civilian government has virtually surrendered the national-security domain to the Pakistan Army.