By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on Thursday and was expected to stress U.S. concerns over Pakistan's expanding nuclear arsenal and to press Sharif to help bring the Taliban back to talks.
Washington has been trying to persuade Pakistan to make a declaration of "restraint" over its nuclear program but Pakistani officials said Sharif would tell Obama Islamabad will not accept limits on its use of small tactical nuclear weapons.
Analysts also question whether Sharif has sufficient influence with his own security establishment to get them to press the Taliban to return to talks on Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is pushing for a negotiated settlement to the 14-year insurgency, which has escalated since tens of thousands of U.S.-led NATO combat troops withdrew ahead of an end-2014 deadline. The two sides held inaugural talks in Pakistan in July but the process has since stalled.
While the Washington talks were expected to focus on nuclear weapons and Islamist militancy, the Obama administration is preparing to sell Pakistan eight F-16 fighter jets in an attempt to bolster the relationship, a U.S. source familiar with the matter said.
The sale, which Congress could block, would be a symbolic step given Pakistan's already large fleet of fighters.
U.S. concerns have been growing about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, tensions between Islamabad and India, and the continued existence of militant sanctuaries in Pakistan used to target the U.S.-backed Afghan government and U.S. forces.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is hampering Obama's efforts to withdraw U.S. troops, but Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank said it was not clear Sharif had the clout with his own army to get military leaders to pressure the Taliban back into talks.
Pakistan insists smaller tactical nuclear weapons would deter a sudden attack by India, which is also a nuclear power, but Washington worries they may further destabilize an already volatile region because their smaller size makes them more tempting to use in a conventional war.
The Federation of American Scientists said this week that since 2011, Pakistan had deployed two new nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missiles and a new medium-range ballistic missile and was developing two extended-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and two nuclear-capable cruise missiles.
It estimated Pakistan's stockpile had grown to 110 to 130 warheads from 90 to 110 in 2011 and could reach 220 to 250 by 2025, making it the world’s fifth-largest nuclear-weapons state.
Pakistani officials say Washington is demanding unreasonable limits on its nuclear weapons while not offering much in return apart from a hazy promise to consider Pakistan as a recognized recipient of nuclear technology.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Julia Edwards, Roberta Rampton, Idrees Ali and Andrea Shalal; Editing by James Dalgleish)