WASHINGTON, D.C.: President Barack Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stressed the positives of a troubled alliance Thursday, during an Oval Office meeting shaded by security disagreements.
Amid smiles and handshakes, Obama welcomed Sharif to the White House and hailed a “long standing relationship” between the United States and Pakistan.
“We work and cooperate on a whole host of issues, not just on security matters, but also on economic, scientific and educational affairs,” Obama said as the meeting began.
But behind closed doors, officials say long-standing security concerns are likely to dominate.
Islamabad’s ties with the Afghan Taliban, support for terror groups that target India and the United States and its rapidly growing nuclear arsenal are seen by Washington as monumental security headaches.
America’s relationship with Islamabad is a prickly one, born of an inter-dependency peppered with mutual mistrust.
Ties were plunged into deep crisis when 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was discovered to be living in a major Pakistani garrison city.
Since then Sharif has returned to the prime minister’s office and made an effort to find areas of cooperation that has yielded some results.
But officials see little change in the attitude of Pakistan’s powerful security services.
In a telling sign of that power, Sharif’s visit will be bookended by US visits from Rizwan Akhtar, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and the upcoming visit of Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif.
“The bottom line is that there are a lot of deep disagreements between these two countries,” said Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“The US has simply lost patience after so many years of providing arms and money to the Pakistani military, the Pakistanis have simply not done what the US has repeatedly asked them to do in terms of cracking down on militants.”
The meeting comes as the White House increasingly shifts its focus in South Asia to Pakistan’s bitter rival India.
Taliban to table?
But Pakistan remains a key player in the region.
Obama recently announced that US troops would be staying in Afghanistan longer than he had promised, but the White House is keen to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The resurgent Islamists briefly captured a key northern Afghan city this month.
The US sees Pakistan as one of the few with influence over the extremists, and analysts say Washington will use the four-day trip to urge the prime minister to keep pushing for a new round of talks.
Experts say that the new Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour has close ties to Pakistan.
Kabul has accused Islamabad of harboring and nurturing Taliban insurgents — allowing them to launch attacks in Afghanistan before melting back across the border.
Obama recently previewed his meeting with Sharif by saying, “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.”
If cooperation is not forthcoming, it is likely to result in growing calls for Washington to limit the transfer of weapons and funds to Islamabad.
“Pakistan must fulfill its obligations to deny safe haven to all terrorist groups and take action against those who aid, support and abet them,” said Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio in a statement as the meeting began.
“Continued US security assistance should be conditioned on Pakistan’s actions against militants that seek to destabilize Afghanistan and threaten the US.”
The United States has also pressed Pakistan to crack down on radical groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Ahead of Sharif’s visit there have been suggestions that cooperation and a possible deal could be reached to more effectively control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, a deal was reached with India to normalize nuclear cooperation in return for safeguards.
But US officials have poured cold water on that suggestion and Sharif was quoted by Pakistani media as pointing out that he was prime minister when the country first become a declared nuclear state.