WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama welcomed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the White House Thursday with fresh promises to strengthen a relationship with an ally viewed as the best hope — and sometime hindrance — to brokering peace in Afghanistan.
The leaders emerged from an Oval Office meeting announcing no timeline for stalled peace talks, nor any major breakthroughs on other items that topped the agenda, including concerns over the growth of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Instead, statements released by the leaders touted new initiatives on trade, clean energy and education for women.
In brief pleasantries before the meeting, Obama stressed cooperation "not just on security matters, but also on economic and scientific and educational affairs."
Sharif agreed he hoped to "to further strengthen and solidify this relationship."
The warm words come as the White House is trying to pressure Pakistan to play a major role in Washington's newly revised plans to end the 14-year-old war at Pakistan's doorstep. Obama last week reversed his pledge to pull American troops out of Afghanistan before he leaves office — an acknowledgment that the country still teeters on the edge of stability. With that decision settled, U.S. officials now hope to focus on political strategies for peace, including coaxing Pakistan toward reviving peace talks stalled since the summer.
A joint statement released by the leaders noted Obama "commended" Pakistan for hosting the talks in July and stressed the "opportunity" talks presented. It made no reference to Sharif's response.
The visit highlights the complex alliances in the war that Obama inherited in 2009, escalated a year later with a surge of American troops designed in part to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, and then vowed to end before he leaves office in January 2017. Instead, Obama announced plans to keep 5,500 U.S. troops there beyond 2016 to continue training and advising Afghan forces and to hunt al-Qaida terrorists.
Pakistan hosted a landmark set of preliminary meetings between Afghan officials and the Taliban in July. But a second round of scheduled talks was postponed after the Afghan government revealed that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had died in a Pakistani hospital two years ago.
Earlier this month, Sharif said his government was trying to revive the negotiations between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. But those talks are complicated by Kabul accusations that Pakistan is playing a double game by cooperating with Washington but also sheltering Taliban leaders.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been rocky over the years, not least because of U.S. concerns about the growth of Pakistan's secretive nuclear arsenal.
In a new report released Thursday, two authoritative nuclear analysts estimated that Pakistan's nuclear weapons stockpile has increased to between 110 and 130 warheads from an estimated 90 to 110 in 2011. The analysts, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, foresee it possibly expanding further to 220 to 250 warheads in another 10 years. That would make Pakistan the world's fifth largest nuclear weapons state behind the United States, Russia, China and France.
The U.S. would like to work toward an agreement on nuclear weapons, but the White House downplayed expectations for any deal soon.
In making his troop announcement last Thursday, Obama noted that Pakistani forces have squeezed remnants of al-Qaida into neighboring Afghanistan.
Evidence of that was a little noticed statement last week by the U.S. military in Kabul about a large-scale U.S.-Afghan air and ground raid against what it called a well-established al-Qaida training camp in the southern province of Kandahar. The U.S. called it one of the largest such counterterrorism operations ever undertaken in Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials remain concerned about elements within the Pakistan government harboring other terrorist networks.
The Associated Press reported last week that some U.S. analysts believed a Pakistani intelligence operative was running a command center for the Taliban out of the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that was hit by an American gunship.
Pakistan's government denies that it sponsors the Taliban or other terrorist groups, such as the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
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