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Pakistan Prime Minister Expected To Discuss Nuclear Security Concerns With Obama


Also in the news today, President Obama meets Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. That meeting is taking place in Washington. Now, since 2001, the United States has aligned itself with Pakistan in the fight on terror. But the relationship has often been strained, to say the least. Today, the president is expected to encourage his Pakistani counterpart to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The meeting with Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, comes just one week after President Obama scrapped plans to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. The White House believes Pakistan is key to a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Still, Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at Georgetown University, says the administration has deep-seated concerns about Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban.

CHRISTINE FAIR: Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary, military assistance, military training. They embed trainers from the Pakistan army with the Taliban.

NORTHAM: But Fair says if there is going to be some sort of political settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan is going to have to be involved.

FAIR: And as we are trying to find a way out of Afghanistan, you know, the irony is we're turning to Pakistan for help, which is really a bad idea for so many reasons. But there doesn't seem to be any other way.

NORTHAM: The question is how to convince Pakistan to do what the U.S. wants and use its influence with the Taliban. Moeed Yusuf, director of the South Asia program at the U.S. Institute for Peace, says that's been a perennial problem for the U.S.

MOEED YUSUF: The U.S. has tried various ways of coming at it in terms of supporting Pakistan, stabilizing Pakistan, sometimes coercing Pakistan, trying to use assistance as leverage. But it hasn't been entirely successful over the past decade.

NORTHAM: There was some glimmer of hope late last year that things would change, says Yusuf.

YUSUF: There seemed to be a major opening with Pakistan and the U.S. - uncharacteristically, Pakistan supporting the Afghan peace process, arranging for a couple of meetings with the Taliban. And things seemed to be falling in place. But the last two or three months have been seeing everything unravel again.

DAN MARKEY: He's in a tough bind back in Pakistan.

NORTHAM: That's Dan Markey, with Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, talking about Prime Minister Sharif. Markey says if the U.S. wants help, Sharif might not be the guy to talk to.

MARKEY: Pretty much everyone believes that he's been very seriously squeezed by the military, that his role and room for independent maneuver is quite limited and that the military is back to calling the shots in terms of all major issues in Pakistan.

NORTHAM: And that includes another outstanding issue, Pakistan's nuclear program. Markey says the U.S. believes Pakistan is rapidly building its nuclear arsenal. It's now believed to be larger than its regional rival, India.

MARKEY: It really worries U.S. planners because they've focused on their tactical nuclear program, both the short-range missile program and the small warheads that would go along with it.

NORTHAM: The concern is those smaller weapons could end up in the hands of militants. One idea floating around Washington is that the U.S. could propose a deal that would curb future arms production in Pakistan. But Markey says the nuclear arsenal is the crown jewel of Pakistan's military.

MARKEY: The Pakistani side has been pretty inclined to push back and say that they'd not be willing to negotiate anything when it comes to their nuclear program.

NORTHAM: The White House says nuclear security will come up during today's meeting. But it's unlikely any sort of nuclear deal will be reached. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.