- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Islamabad’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal, its deepening relations with China and the prospect of a homegrown Pakistani drone war against extremists along the Afghan border will all be on the table when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visits the White House on Thursday.

But President Obama’s own shift on the issue of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will take center stage, according foreign policy insiders, who say the administration is keen to pressure Pakistan to exert its leverage over the Taliban to bring about new peace talks with the militants.

Mr. Sharif’s visit comes three months after talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives collapsed, and less than a week after Mr. Obama abandoned plans to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan and instead keep nearly 10,000 troops on the ground through at least the end of 2016.

U.S.-Pakistani ties were hurt by the surprise 2011 mission that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout, and relations have not been helped recently new press accounts alleging Washington and Islamabad secretly collaborated in the raid.

Pakistani officials argue that relations with Washington under Mr. Sharif are stronger now than they were even before the bin Laden raid. The relationship has particularly bolstered after the Sharif government last year launched a sustained campaign to rout Islamist militants along its side of the border with Afghanistan.

On greeting the Pakistani prime minister in Washington on Wednesday morning, Secretary of State John F. Kerry personally “recognized Pakistan’s efforts and sacrifices in targeting extremists,” according to a State Department spokesman.

The Pakistani offensive, which included the military’s first drone strike, has not included any incursions into Afghanistan, where many Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are believed to have fled, and officials in Islamabad say they want to play a bigger role on the Afghan side.

But Pakistani official remain fearful they will be left in the lurch when U.S. forces ultimately do withdraw from Afghanistan, a concern Mr. Sharif is expected to press on Thursday.

Aides to Mr. Sharif strongly deny long-standing reports that at least parts of Pakistan’s intelligence and security services are secretly working with the Taliban. The head of the Pakistani Air Force said in an interview earlier this month that there are no restraints in the current counterterrorism campaign.

“This is not child’s play going on. We’re talking about serious business,” Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman said. “If there’s somebody that [U.S. officials] think should be taken out, they should tell us and we’ll take them out. We have done it before, and we will do it again.”

Also on Thursday’s agenda will be Islamabad’s deepening ties to China, which has invested heavily in Pakistani infrastructure in recent years and is building two new nuclear power plants there.

There is also a push on the Pakistani side for a new civil nuclear power agreement with the U.S., along the lines of the deal India struck with the George W. Bush administration in 2005. But some U.S. analysts say the time is not right to cut a deal.

Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama will be “putting the cart before the horse” if he focuses too heavily on the civilian nuclear issue Thursday with Mr. Sharif.

“Discussing civil nuclear cooperation with the Pakistani government before it has begun to crack down on terrorist groups that are undermining the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and that fuel Indo-Pakistani tensions would compromise vital U.S. national security interests in the region,” she wrote in an analysis posted on the foundation’s website.

Mr. Sharif himself was talking economics and investment in an address to a packed U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, saying the improving security situation and economic reforms have made the country “an attractive and thriving market” for foreign investment.

Miles Young, chairman of the U.S. Pakistan Business Council, said the bilateral economic relationship has a lot of room to grow.

“The state of business between our two countries could and should be much bigger,” he said.

Meghan Bartlett contributed to this report.

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