What to expect during PM Nawaz Sharif's US visit

By Brajesh Upadhyay
BBC Urdu, Washington DC

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif visits Washington on Thursday

As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Meets US President Barack Obama at the White House, the top issue on the table is the US extension of its military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan. The two countries' complicated relationship doesn't seem to be getting any clearer.

Prime Minister Sharif comes to Washington less than a week after President Obama had to abandon his plans to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan before he leaves office.

Mr Obama said 5,500 troops would stay on until 2017, amid a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

The US president emphasised the need to end the sanctuaries for "the Taliban and other terrorists" and said he will urge the Pakistani Prime Minister to press the Taliban to return to peace talks.

When the two leaders meet at the White House on Thursday, experts say there is no doubt that Pakistan's role in the war in Afghanistan will be the top issue.

Pakistan is considered a major player in the war in Afghanistan. Washington has always accused its army of being deeply involved in supporting the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network.

Bruce Riedel, who authored the Obama administration's Af-Pak policy, says if the Pakistani Army wasn't supporting the Afghan Taliban, it would have been a wholly different kind of war.

"During these talks, President Obama will see Nawaz Sharif not as the problem but perhaps not also the solution," says Mr Riedel, a former CIA analyst and adviser to four US presidents.

He says "not the problem" in the sense that it's not Nawaz Sharif who supports the Taliban but it's the Pakistani Army. By "not the solution" he means it's not clear if he can make the Army do what he wants it to do.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Nato and Afghan soldiers arrive at the scene of a recent suicide attack in Kabul

Mr Riedel suggests the Obama administration's message should be clear-cut. Either the Pakistani army stops supporting the Taliban, or the US military assistance will end completely.

Currently, the US pays close to $500m (£323m) every year to Pakistan as reimbursements for operations against militancy.

In the past 14 years they have paid Pakistan more than $20bn in military support.

"I think it's the leverage we have and it's long past time for us to use that leverage," says Mr Riedel.

US National Security Advisor Susan Rice delivered a similar message when she was in Islamabad a few months ago, to little change.

With the Saudis and Chinese supporting Pakistan with finance and investments, many are questioning if the US leverage is large enough.

But Shamila Chaudhary, former Pakistan director at the Obama White House, says the reimbursements are a big deal for the Pakistani Army.

Image source, Getty Images
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Will the Pakistani army do what the prime minister wants?

"We are the only government that has given such a large chunk of budget support to one particular institution," Ms Chaudhary, who now works at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"The Pakistanis keep that as a line item in their budget every year."

She says Mr Sharif will be pushing for this money, also known as the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), to continue along with a whole suite of assistance for Pakistan.

There are many who fear this financial assistance is a must for the US to stay engaged with Pakistan, a nuclear power that's steadily increasing its arsenal.

The safety of Pakistani nuclear weapons has been a major concern for Washington, and Mr Obama is likely to bring that up in his discussion with the Pakistani prime minister.

Media reports in the past few days have suggested that the White House will discuss a potential deal to limit Pakistan's nuclear programme in return for easier entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a body that controls the export and trade of fissile material.

White House spokesperson Josh Earnest did not rule out nuclear talks but tampered down any further expectations, saying such a deal "is not something that's likely to come to fruition next week".

The overall mood of this visit is in sharp contrast to Mr Sharif's last visit in 2013. He had just been elected to office and was trying to chart out a path independent of the Pakistani Army.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The visit is expected to be much different than their meeting in 2013

Today, he is considered too weak domestically to make any dramatic gestures, and there's a general perception that he will not deviate from the Army's talking points.

In public, Pakistani officials have said the visit would be about boosting bilateral relations and the prime minister will have a wish list ranging from access to the US market, economic and defence ties, and support against its neighbour India.

But in private, they have been less upbeat.

A Pakistani official, not wanting to be named as he is not authorised to speak on the matter, sums up the general mood.

"It's become typical of the relationship. Whenever there's a high-profile visit, the Americans put so much pressure on the dignitary that there's never a time for him to read out his wish-list."

A former US official was more blunt, saying, "We don't really know what this relationship is any more."