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Meeting to Disagree: Obama and Pakistan's Sharif

  • Molly McKitterick

FILE - President Barack Obama shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Oct. 23, 2013.

FILE - President Barack Obama shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Oct. 23, 2013.

The U.S. president and Pakistani prime minister will come to their meeting Thursday with different issues atop their agendas — and may be convening to disagree, both on regional threats and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

On President Barack Obama’s mind is countering extremism in the region, particularly in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said that he will make no compromise on his country’s “national interests” in the talks, which is likely to mean that he is thinking about rival India and the deepening ties between it and the U.S.

Both countries have already said they are not going to agree on curbing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Pakistani officials have said that Sharif will tell Obama that Pakistan will not accept limits on its use of small tactical nuclear weapons. And White House spokesman Josh Earnest conceded that a nuclear deal was not likely during Sharif’s four-day visit, despite media reports that it was being contemplated.

The Pakistani nuclear arsenal and its fast growth is a worry to the U.S. In August, two American research organizations reported that Pakistan could have the third-largest stockpile in the world by 2025. The report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center said Pakistan is adding to its arsenal rapidly.

“The U.S. simply worries about Pakistan being a very volatile country that is a haven for so many different types of militant groups, and also understanding that the Pakistani security establishment has very unsavory relationships with some of these groups. All of this [is] compounded with the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons,” the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman said.

Pakistani officials defend the program as being aimed at India and deterrent in nature.

Concerns in Afghanistan

Last week, Obama announced that he was slowing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and that more than 5,000 U.S. troops would remain in the country indefinitely.

The announcement came on the heels of the Taliban attack on and brief takeover of the Afghan city of Kunduz. Some sources say Pakistani militants were fighting alongside the Taliban in Kunduz. Obama has said he will raise that issue with Sharif.

White House press secretary Earnest last week said Pakistan has a role to play in helping to bring about a political settlement in Afghanistan.

But Sharif will say that while Pakistan is determined to promote peace in Afghanistan, it is up to the Afghan government to decide what role Islamabad will play and whether it should use its limited influence with the Taliban to bring the insurgents back to the negotiating table, said Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign policy matters.

"They are a sovereign and independent country. Pakistan, as a friendly neighbor with multiple linkages, is ready to play any role that can help promote peace process in Afghanistan," said Fatemi.

Pakistan’s worry

An indication of what is on Sharif’s mind came Wednesday as he met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the president’s guest house, Blair House: India and the alleged destabilizing role of Indian intelligence.

An adviser to Sharif gave Kerry three dossiers, containing what was said to be evidence of Indian involvement in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Balochistan and Karachi.

Pakistan's tensions with India have increased in recent months, with each side accusing the other of indulging in "unprovoked" cross-border fire, while a wide-ranging official dialogue aimed at normalizing ties remains suspended.

U.S. officials have long campaigned to prevent another war between India and Pakistan, fearing it could escalate to a nuclear conflict.

Those fears have intensified in the wake of development of Pakistan’s short-range missiles and their possible deployment, because critics believe the intermingling of conventional forces and nuclear weapons in a battlefield theater makes a nuclear war more likely.

The two leaders last met in the White House two years ago when Sharif had just been elected to office and was looking to separate his policy from the army’s. Since then, his influence has weakened, setting a different stage for Thursday’s talks.

“Peaks and troughs,” Earnest said of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

VOA's Aru Pande and Ayaz Gul contributed to this report.

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