Obama Meets With Pakistani Prime Minister

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President Barack Obama welcomed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the White House Thursday with talk of strengthening U.S. ties to a key player in brokering peace in Afghanistan.

Obama’s meeting with Sharif came one week after the president reversed his pledge to pull American troops out of Afghanistan before he leaves office and as the U.S. is turning to two core political dimensions of the war: obstacles to a negotiated peace, and Pakistan as a Taliban sanctuary.

The leaders were also expected to discuss touch on U.S. financial assistance to Islamabad and the prospects for Pakistani acceptance of limits on the scope of its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Major breakthroughs are seen as unlikely.

“The United States and Pakistan have a long-standing relationship, work and cooperate on a whole host of issues. Not just on security matters, but also on economic and scientific and educational affairs,” Obama said in brief remarks to reporters before the private meeting. “We’re looking forward to using this meeting as an opportunity to further deepen the relationship between the United States and Pakistan.”

Sitting next to the president in the Oval Office, Sharif agreed he hoped to “to further strengthen and solidify this relationship.”

The visit highlights the complexities of a 14-year-old Afghan war that Obama inherited in 2009, escalated a year later with a surge of American troops designed in part to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, and then vowed to end before he hands off to a new president in January 2017. Instead, Obama announced last week that he plans to keep 5,500 U.S. troops there beyond 2016 to continue training and advising Afghan forces and to hunt al-Qaida terrorists.

Obama’s decision was an acknowledgement that the war’s end game is not going according to plan.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been rocky over the years, not least because of U.S. concerns about the growth of Pakistan’s secretive nuclear arsenal. The U.S. is interested in moving Pakistan toward an arrangement limiting the scope of its nuclear stockpile, but there are few signs that any breakthrough is in sight.

In a new report released Thursday, two authoritative nuclear analysts estimated that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons stockpile has increased to between 110 and 130 warheads from an estimated 90 to 110 in 2011. The analysts, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, foresee it possibly expanding further to 220 to 250 warheads in another 10 years. That would make Pakistan the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons state behind the United States, Russia, China and France.

In a report being published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kristensen and Norris said Pakistan appears to have six nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in its arsenal, three more than in 2011. At least two other nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and two new cruise missiles are in development, they said, adding that they see signs that Pakistan also is developing a nuclear weapon — possibly a cruise missile — for deployment on submarines.

In making his troop announcement last Thursday, Obama noted that Pakistani forces have squeezed remnants of al-Qaida into neighboring Afghanistan.

“Pressure from Pakistan has resulted in more al-Qaida coming into Afghanistan,” Obama said. Evidence of that was a little noticed statement last week by the U.S. military in Kabul about a large-scale U.S.-Afghan air and ground raid against what it called a well-established al-Qaida training camp in the southern province of Kandahar. The U.S. called it one of the largest such counterterrorism operations every undertaken in Afghanistan.

In noting his coming meeting with Sharif, Obama also said sanctuaries for the Taliban and “other terrorists” must end.

“I will continue to urge all parties in the region to press the Taliban to return to peace talks and to do their part in pursuit of the peace that Afghans deserve,” he said.

The Associated Press reported last week that some U.S. analysts believed a Pakistani intelligence operative was running a command center for the Taliban out of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that was hit by an American gunship.

Sharif met Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry. State Department spokesman John Kirby said they discussed Obama’s troop announcement, “noting that an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is the surest way to end violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and in the region.”

Sharif said Oct. 10 that his government was trying to revive stalled peace talks between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. He said Islamabad was once again prepared to play mediator to end the Taliban’s battle to regain power in Kabul. The Taliban ruled the country until U.S. forces invaded in October 2001. Kabul accuses Pakistan of playing a double game by cooperating with Washington but also sheltering Taliban leaders.

Pakistan hosted a landmark set of preliminary meetings between Afghan officials and the Taliban in July. But a second round of scheduled talks was postponed after the Afghan government revealed that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital two years ago.

Pakistan denies that it sponsors the Taliban or other terrorist groups such as the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Kathleen Hennessey and Robert Burns