ISLAMABAD: Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif is expected to mainly focus on Afghanistan during his coming visit to the United States.

During his stay in the US, from Nov 15 to 20, the COAS will meet senior officials at the Pentagon and the State Department, according to officials making preparation for the visit.

This will be the army chief’s second visit to Washington in a year. And it comes close on the heels of a visit to Washington by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month when he discussed almost everything with President Barack Obama.

But given the extent of the military’s influence in the country’s foreign affairs and security matters, people here believe that more substantive discussions would take place during the army chief’s US trip.

One must also not lose sight of the fact that Gen Sharif himself requested for this visit. To put it in the words of a Washington-based source, it is not ‘a counterpart visit’.

The request had been made before the prime minister toured Washington.

But that does not mean that the yearning for a meeting is one-sided. American officials too are keen to meet a general who has successfully fought militancy at home and has looked willing to improve relations with Afghanistan.

They see him as a “very candid, clear and upright interlocutor”.

“Many of the times he says things that would otherwise look quite undiplomatic, but he conveys the reality,” said a source who sat in some of Gen Sharif’s meetings with US officials.

He was last year awarded the US Legion of Merit for his contribution to “peace and security”.

Gen Sharif, according to a well-placed source, would be discussing a wide range of security issues with the US officials, but the focus would be largely on Afghanistan, where the peace process between the Taliban and the Ghani government, which started in July, remains suspended.

Moreover, he would discuss the stalemate in Pak-Afghan bilateral relations, which started after the breakdown of reconciliation talks following the disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death and has been preventing the two countries from working together for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The general could share his proposal about how the impasse in reconciliation process could be overcome.

Both President Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had after their White House meeting on Oct 22 called on the Taliban to enter direct talks with the Afghan government and work for a sustainable settlement.

During his recent engagements with foreign leaders, the army chief had been underscoring the importance of a political settlement in Afghanistan, besides calling on “all stakeholders” to revive the reconciliation process.

Speaking at the US Centcom’s Asia Security Conference in Germany, Gen Sharif had stressed that “perpetual instability in Afghanistan had telling effects on the region”.

The Haqqani network would not be a major sticking point in the dialogue, said a source familiar with the thinking in Washington.

The US had at least three months ago threatened to hold about $300 million in Coalition Support disbursements because it was not convinced that Pakistan was doing enough to disrupt the terrorist network.

But, lately much has changed.

Top US commander in Afghanistan Gen John Campbell in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month sounded more appreciative of Pakistani efforts even though he still pressed on Pakistan Army to do more against the Haqqani network.

A source disclosed that the urgency about action against the Haqqani network was no longer there because the American side now had a “better understanding” of what Pakistan was doing and it also received “credible assurances” from Pakistan military.

But, still the issue would be taken up by the American side, albeit with lesser emphasis, the source added.

Gen Sharif would brief his American hosts about the progress made in the Zarb-i-Azb Operation since it was launched in North Waziristan in June last year.

Pakistani security officials say the operation is in its last phase and 89 per cent of North Waziristan had been cleared of militants with the exception of a few pockets along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistani troops had commenced ground offensive in North Waziristan’s treacherous Shawal valley in August. According to military, the operation in Shawal was progressing well and most of the heights had been captured. But, the army does not give the timeframe for completion of the action.

The army is, nevertheless, concerned about emergence of terrorist sanctuaries in the Afghan territory bordering North Waziristan. According to a senior military official, at least 16 TTP sanctuaries are developing along the border on the Afghan side. The sanctuaries can pose threat if not addressed, he warned.

Gen Sharif in his meetings in the US would emphasise on stronger border management.

American side would be interested in knowing how US could further assist in Pakistan Army’s counter-terrorism operations.

The US has already indicated its willingness to sell eight F-16 fighter jets. About 14 combat aircraft, 59 military trainer jets and 374 armoured personnel carriers were earlier this year given by the US to Pakistan from its excess defense equipment inventories.

Gen Sharif and his interlocutors would also exchange views on the nuclear programme, particularly with regard to the continuing discussions about integrating Pakistan into nuclear mainstream and unabated tensions with India.

As Gen Sharif prepares for Washington, President Obama’s adviser on South Asia Peter Lavoy is reaching Islamabad. It’s not clear if his visit was linked to the army chief’s trip, but he would definitely be discussing most of the issues that Gen Sharif had planned for Washington.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2015

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