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Aiming for cordiality first

Within the next 72 hours or so, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be meeting US President Donald Trump for the first time at the Arab-Islamic-US summit in Riyadh. And even though policy wonks have high expectations from this encounter, it is hardly the time or the place to set the tone for the future direction of the relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Our prime minister will be one of a number of Muslim leaders who are also meeting Trump for the first time. Introductions and political niceties are probably all that can be squeezed into these meetings. The task of weighing up the resentment and the distrust characterising the US-Pakistan relationship is also best left to a bilateral meeting at which the whole gamut of ties could be taken up and discussed threadbare.

Neither the Foreign Office nor the PM is prepared to take any chances though — judging perhaps from the candid exchanges that took place during Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s meeting with Mr Trump’s National Security Adviser H R McMaster last month. A proper brief covering Islamabad’s positions on India and Afghanistan has been drawn up for the Trump-Sharif meet-up just in case some troubling questions are raised. As other leaders have found out to their detriment, Mr Trump has a reputation for saying provocative and embarrassing things for effect and other less obtuse reasons. And when in a combative mood, his abrasiveness has spared few among his country’s closest allies. In that event, Mr Sharif will have to maintain his composure and smile back like patience on a monument.

If Mr Trump genuinely meant what he said in a telephone conversation with Mr Sharif after his election victory that his administration wanted a strong relationship with Pakistan, our prime minister must try to build on that pledge. Officials on both sides should avoid confrontationist postures or repeating different charges against each other. Although Pakistan isn’t likely to forget the uncharitable remarks made by a few Trump aides, Mr Sharif would do well to call for fresh beginnings — away from the painful recriminations of the past.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2017.

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