Twice prime minister in the 1990s during the administration of President Bill Clinton, Sharif is no stranger to the complications of relationships with the United States and Afghanistan. The Taliban were at the height of their power in Afghanistan when Sharif last was in office, and hes probably the only world leader in power now who personally conducted political business with the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
So, despite the reservations of the Pakistani military, which sees the Afghan government as complicit with India in supporting a secular nationalist insurgency in Pakistans western Baluchistan province, Sharif says hell use Pakistans influence with the Taliban to promote political negotiations with the U.S. and, in due course, the Afghan government itself.
To that end, Pakistan released a small group of senior Afghan Taliban functionaries from jail last month, although the Taliban have since complained that their former deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, remains in custody.
But helping the U.S. settle matters in Afghanistan is only a means to another goal. What Sharif really seeks, analysts said, is American help to develop Pakistans economy, which has lost an estimated $60 billion in growth, largely to an insurgency thats cost 40,000 civilian and military lives.
To accomplish that, Sharif has centered his foreign policy on his countrys need to generate business and jobs, something that can happen only if Pakistan has peace and stability at home and in relations with its neighbors Afghanistan to the west and India, Pakistans foe, to the east.
Sharif has told his domestic audiences that the United States, the countrys largest trading partner and source of investment, is crucial to that happening, so theres no point in antagonizing the Americans. Hes worked to calm the anti-U.S. sentiment that was reflected before the May election in opinion polls, which found that half of Pakistanis supported the Taliban and most of the remainder didnt view the U.S. as a friend, either.
Those feelings were intensified two years ago when American aircraft attacked a Pakistani outpost along the Afghan border, killing more than 20 soldiers and sparking Pakistan to suspend defense and security cooperation.
On Wednesday, Sharif and Obama will formally announce the resumption of that cooperation. The White House meeting also is likely to yield a document defining areas of common interest.
Details will include the release of $1.6 billion in military aid and compensation for Pakistans counterterrorism operations, and probably the reopening of two major logistical corridors through Pakistan into Afghanistan to facilitate the quickest and cheapest possible withdrawal of U.S. military hardware.
The White House also may announce financing for a $12 billion hydroelectric dam in northern Pakistan thats key to mitigating the countrys chronic power shortage and increasing productivity from agriculture, which employs more than half the workforce.
The prime minister also wants the Obama administration to give him time and space to build public support at home for the decisive phase of counterinsurgency politics. Crucial to that, Sharif thinks, is ending U.S. drone strikes on al Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistans northwest tribal areas, notably North Waziristan, from where they continue to launch attacks into Afghanistan.