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Expectations Modest As Sharif Meets Obama

  • Heather Maher

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (right) met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on October 20.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (right) met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on October 20.

WASHINGTON -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and U.S. President Barack Obama will sit down at the White House for talks on October 23 aimed at improving bilateral relations amid strong opposition by Islamabad to U.S. drone strikes and calls by Washington for greater efforts to battle militants.

The White House struck a welcoming tone in a statement announcing the October 23 meeting, saying it would underscore the "resilience of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship."

Obama is expected to press Sharif to do more to crush militant groups who launch cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops from Pakistani tribal areas. He'll also urge Islamabad to work harder at persuading the Taliban to sit down for peace talks with Kabul.

The United States and its NATO allies are less than 15 months away from a planned pullout of all combat troops from Afghanistan.

Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at Washington's Wilson Center, said Afghanistan and regional security issues will dominate U.S. talking points.

"We very much would like Pakistan's help in persuading the Afghan Taliban to engage in a genuine peace process with Kabul in an effort to and in hopes of establishing or creating a political settlement before the U.S. withdraws its final combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of next year," Hathaway said. "We also would like Pakistan to be more vigorous in preventing militants and extremists based in Pakistan, primarily in the tribal areas, from crossing into Afghanistan and attacking U.S. and NATO troops."

Sharif said on October 22 in a speech in Washington that he will demand an end to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, which a new report from Amnesty International says could be considered war crimes.

"In my first statement to the parliament, I had reiterated our strong commitment to ensuring and end to the drone attacks," Sharif said. "More recently, our political parties in a national conference had declared that the use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts to at eliminating terrorism from our country. This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship as well. I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks."

Hathaway says he won't get much satisfaction from Obama on that request.

"For political reasons, he has to raise the drone issue with President Obama, even though he already knows that Obama is not simply going to agree to no more drone usages in Pakistan," he says. "Obama will say to him, 'Mr. Prime Minister, I understand your position, however, so long as militant groups are using sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks against U.S. soldiers, I'm obligated to do everything I can to safeguard American lives.' So they will have to disagree on this."

There are areas of agreement between the United States and Pakistan, including economic cooperation, the desire for stability in Afghanistan, and better ties between Pakistan and India.

U.S.-Pakistani relations have suffered in recent years for many reasons, including the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore, the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani troops in a U.S. air strike, and a secret U.S. military raid inside the country to kill Osama bin Laden.

Analysts say Wednesday's meeting will set a new tone in the relationship and reestablish channels of communication that have been lost.

For his part, Sharif said that relations between his country and the United States "have stood the test of time" and "always weathered the occasional storm."

Last week the United States quietly decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan that was suspended when relations disintegrated in 2011.