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U.S. Urges Pakistani Nuclear Restraint, Help With Afghan Peace Talks

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on October 22.
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on October 22.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged Pakistan to avoid risky and destabilizing developments in its nuclear weapons program while working to help reignite peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Obama's 90-minute talk with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on October 22 came at a time of high tensions between Pakistan and its neighbors India and Afghanistan.

Washington has been concerned about Pakistan's development of new nuclear weapons systems, including small tactical nuclear weapons, and has been trying to persuade Pakistan to commit to restraining growth of those weapons.

However, Pakistani officials said Islamabad will not accept limits to its weapons program and argue that smaller tactical nuclear weapons are needed to deter a sudden attack by India.

In reference to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Obama "stressed the importance of avoiding any developments that might invite increased risk to nuclear safety, security, or strategic stability," the White House said.

In a joint statement, the leaders said "all sides" should act with restraint and work toward strategic stability in South Asia, where they agreed there was a continuing threat of nuclear terrorism.

The statement said Obama and Sharif also committed to the Afghan peace process and called on Taliban leaders to enter direct talks with Kabul, which have stalled since a first round of discussions in Pakistan in July.

The talks broke down after news emerged that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.

"It's a setback, no doubt, and it will take some time to overcome this setback, but we will try again," Sharif said after the meeting.

While Sharif said his government is trying to revive the negotiations, the task is complicated by Kabul's accusations that Pakistan is playing a double game by saying it wants peace but also sheltering Taliban leaders.

America's relationship with Islamabad is also complex and prickly. The two sides have grown inter-dependent through years of pursuing the Taliban and other militant groups together, yet joint efforts are often overshadowed by mutual mistrust.

Since Sharif returned to the prime minister's office two years ago, both sides have made an effort to find areas of cooperation.

In his talks with Sharif, Obama sought help with Americans held hostage by militants in the region and welcomed Sharif's offer to assist in ensuring their safe return, apparently in a reference to an American couple kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2012.

But despite a willing government, U.S. officials see little change in the attitude of Pakistan's secretive security services. Many officials and analysts question whether the civilian government really is in control of Pakistan's powerful military.

In a telling sign of the power divide, Sharif's visit was bookended by U.S. visits from Rizwan Akhtar, the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, and an upcoming visit of Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif.

The United States sees Pakistan as one of the few states with influence over the Taliban, but that influence lies primarily in the military and security services. The new Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour is believed to have close ties to Islamabad.

Pakistan denies that it sponsors the Taliban or other terrorist groups.

In any case, with little apparent restraint from Pakistan, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has escalated this year in the wake of the departure of tens of thousands of U.S.-led NATO combat troops from Afghanistan last year.

The upsurge in fighting is now hampering Obama's efforts to withdraw remaining U.S. troops.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP