Roller-coaster ties: PM, aides finalise agenda of ‘tough’ Washington trip

Oct 16, 2013| Courtesy by : tribune.com.p

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has given final touches to the agenda of his upcoming meeting with US President Barack Obama in which the latter is expected to solicit Islamabad’s support for negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

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President Obama is also likely to seek Pakistan’s assistance for ensuring a trouble-free withdrawal of US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan in December 2014 when the prime minister meets him on October 23 in Washington.

In a meeting with his top aides on foreign affairs and the top military leadership on Tuesday, the premier discussed the contours of the agenda of his scheduled visit to the United States next week. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, Adviser to PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Special Assistant to PM Tariq Fatemi and ISI Director-General Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam were present.

He held the meeting to get their input on what is being deemed the toughest diplomatic assignment for him so far in his third stint as prime minister.

“The meeting discussed matters pertaining to national security and reviewed the overall security situation of the country,” said an official statement issued from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The premier will be visiting Washington at a time when the United States is desperate to ink a strategic pact with Afghanistan, negotiate a possible deal with the Afghan Taliban for an honourable exit and at the same time, securing its strategic interests in the region.

The huddle at Prime Minister’s Office came just a day after Obama’s point-man for Pakistan and Afghanistan James Dobbins concluded his Islamabad visit and met him Sartaj Aziz, Chaudhry Nisar and General Kayani individually.

“All foreign engagements were discussed in the meeting,” Tariq Fatemi told The Express Tribune. Asked if prospects of talks with Pakistani Taliban were also reviewed, he responded: “Not to my knowledge.”

“All regional security issues […] were discussed, but the main focus was the prime minister’s visit to the United States,” said an official of Prime Minister’s Office.

Besides seeking help in the resumption of stalled negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, the US president is likely to ask for Pakistan’s cooperation in withdrawing military hardware from Afghanistan ahead of the end of NATO’s combat operations next year.

During the previous regime, Pakistan’s parliament had adopted a resolution in which it had made it clear that Pakistan will not allow US or NATO to use its land routes for transportation of military hardware to and from Afghanistan.

The Nawaz Sharif government that took power this May would have to deal with this important clause of the resolution which was passed unanimously and PML-N, although in opposition at that time, had supported it. The resolution had allowed the movement of non-combat supplies through Pakistani land routes.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has already predicted that it will be a tough visit where according to him some “frank discussions about some serious challenges and some serious concerns” will take place.

Meanwhile, Foreign Office officials said Pakistan has prepared a set of its concerns, which the prime minister will candidly convey to the US president. Officials said Prime Minister Sharif, in his meeting with the US president, will also take up the issue of drone strikes in FATA. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants has offered ceasefire in return for an end to US drone strikes.

Meanwhile, amid stiff resistance from the United States on Pakistan’s plans to import gas from Iran, a special cell in the foreign ministry has been working on costs and benefits of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project. In case the US president asks Islamabad to shelve the project, the prime minister can present his case and elucidate Pakistan’s urgent energy needs to him, said officials.

Pakistan-US relations frayed since its unilateral raid to kill Osama bin Laden. The relations further soured when a US airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Salala checkpost later the same year.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2013.