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What to expect from Sharif-Obama talks

Pakistani PM Sharif and US President Obama are set to hold talks on Wednesday amid Washington’s concerns over Pakistan’s support for Islamists in Afghanistan and its nuclear safety. But will Islamabad accept US demands?
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will kickoff his three-day official visit to the US on the night of October 20. The premier is set to meet US President Barack Obama on Wednesday, October 21, and the two leaders are expected to discuss a range of topics, including the security of Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal, the volatile situation in Afghanistan, as well as Islamabad’s tense relationship with neighboring India.

Although Sharif’s administration is describing the PM’s US visit as historic, experts have little expectations from the diplomatic exercise.

And Sharif himself dashed all hopes about a possible breakthrough on any of the above-mentioned issues when he told reporters in London en route to Washington that “there would be no compromise on the country’s national interests during the visit to the United States.”

When a Pakistani leader says there would be no compromise on “national interests,” he usually means the country will continue to pursue decades-old policies of countering Indian influence in the region, say political analysts.

The Islamic country’s nuclear weapons, the use of proxy jihadists in Afghanistan, and a hostile foreign policy against Asia’s emerging economic power India come under the ambit of Pakistan’s “national interests,” according to many security and foreign policy experts.

That is why, analysts say, it is futile to expect that Sharif’s meeting with Obama could somehow pressure Islamabad into accepting Washington’s demands on regional and security matters.

Thus, Sharif’s London remarks could be interpreted as a signal to the Obama administration that it should not expect Pakistan to act like its “client state.” According to some experts, China has already replaced the US as Pakistan’s number one strategic and economic partner.

Also, Sharif’s insistence on carrying out an independent foreign policy should be looked at as an assurance to his powerful military generals back home that his civilian administration would do as “commanded” by the country’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, who many believe is running the country.

Renewed violence in Afghanistan

President Obama recently announced that he was revising his earlier decision of withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan before 2017. More than 5,000 US soldiers will now stay in the war-torn country to help the Afghan security forces for an indefinite period of time.

The decision came after Taliban militants attacked and briefly took over the country’s fifth-largest and strategically-significant city of Kunduz last month.

Some sources claim that Pakistani jihadists have been fighting along with the Taliban in Kunduz and other northern areas of Afghanistan. That is why Obama made it clear earlier this month that he would take up the issue with PM Sharif in Washington.

“President Obama is most likely to talk not only about Kunduz but the whole of Afghanistan, which is increasingly coming under attack from Pakistan-based terrorists,” Arif Jamal, a US-based journalist and author of books on extremism in Pakistan, told DW.

But Jamal thinks that the US pressure won’t be enough to make Islamabad rethink and revise its Afghanistan policies. “The carrot alone is not working. The US must use the stick by imposing military and economic sanctions on Pakistan. As long as the US aid keeps flowing to Islamabad, there will be no change in policy,” he asserted.

But Pakistani researcher and analyst Farooq Sulehria believes that even if Sharif has any desire to re-examine Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan, he is simply powerless to do so: “The US knows the situation. Yes, there will be some scolding against the Pakistani military and its security agencies from Obama, which Sharif would convey to the military leadership later. But nothing will change as the civilians have no control on foreign policy in Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s nuclear safety

Another topic that Obama and Sharif are likely to discuss is related to the South Asian country’s nuclear arsenal. A recent report by two US think tanks states that Pakistan could have the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile within a decade.

Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center on August 27, the paper concludes that Pakistan could have a nuclear arsenal not only twice the size of neighboring India’s but also larger than those of the United Kingdom, China, and France.

Pakistan has a history of nuclear proliferation, and despite public statements by US officials that the Islamic country’s nuclear weapons are safe, there are growing fears that they could fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists. The Obama administration, thus, wants to ensure better security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and limit their numbers.

The White House confirmed last week that the US was in talks with Pakistan “on issues relating to nuclear safety and security.” It, however, squashed speculation that a nuclear deal between the two countries could be signed during Sharif’s US visit.

“At this point, the United States has been engaged with Pakistan, as well as the rest of the international community, on issues related to nuclear safety and security,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing. He said that due to Prime Minister Sharif’s brief visit, he “would not be overly excited about the prospects of reaching the kind of agreement that is being speculated about publicly.”

“The Obama administration is surely very worried about Pakistan’s nukes. Ideally, President Obama would try to resolve the issue before the next president takes over in January 2017. However, it is unlikely that he could bring Pakistan’s nuclear assets under some sort of control,” Jamal said.

And if Sharif unilaterally decided to agree to US demands in this regard, he would lose his government upon his return to Pakistan as the public opinion was not in favor of nuclear concessions, the expert added.

Increased hostility with India

Most analysts agree that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is driven by its perception of the threat posed by India. The Indo-Pakistani ties have deteriorated considerably over the past few months and the leaders of the neighboring nations have ratcheted up war rhetoric.

The situation is worrisome for the US, which wants Islamabad to focus more on fighting home-grown Islamists than scaling up tension with New Delhi.

“The US has always pressed Pakistan to abandon the use of jihadists as an instrument of foreign policy. It needs to press Islamabad harder though,” analyst Jamal said.

Experts believe that there will be a business as usual between Sharif and Obama on this matter. President Obama will ask PM Sharif to placate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s concerns about Pakistan’s backing of proxy jihadists inside Indian territory, while Sharif, on his part, would reiterate Pakistan’s official commitment to regional peace, according to Sulehria.

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