David Cameron will today ask Pakistan's re-elected leader to help shore up security in the region – and to stay out of Afghanistan as it takes it first faltering steps as an independent democracy. Mr Cameron will become the first major leader to meet Nawaz Sharif, as he starts an unprecedented third term as prime minister.
The talks are expected to cover political and economic co-operation between the two countries. But even before the Prime Minister arrived in Islamabad following a short flight from Afghanistan yesterday, it was clear that the meeting was one of the most significant events of his brief tour of Asian capitals.
Mr Cameron and his advisers believe that a strong Pakistan will be key in maintaining the stability of Afghanistan and the surrounding states. But they also fear it is uniquely vulnerable to the kind of militant extremism that has torn apart Afghanistan for decades.
During a press conference in Kabul yesterday, both Mr Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed that Pakistan had much to gain from a stable Afghanistan – and so should help to push forward a peace process involving the Taliban. "We have a good relationship with Pakistan," Mr Cameron said. "It is in Pakistan's short, medium and long-term interests to have a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan with which they have a good relationship."
Relations between the two countries have been strained over a number of years by complaints of Pakistani involvement in the Afghan insurgency, and claims that it helped the Taliban set up a formal office in Qatar.
Earlier this year, Mr Cameron invited delegations from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Chequers in an attempt to persuade them to set aside deep-seated suspicion and work together on the peace process.
Tariq Azeem, a spokesman for Mr Sharif, said he was likely to offer to use his influence with the Pakistani wing of the Taliban to push for a negotiated settlement when he saw Mr Cameron. But Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US, was critical. "What has been achieved since Chequers? Nothing. The fact is that Britain does not have a policy on Afghanistan that is independent of the US. The risk is [Mr Cameron's] involvement just complicates things."
The meetings in Islamabad, immediately after he had left Kabul, promised to be difficult but his forthcoming visit to oil-rich Kazakhstan remains the most controversial leg of his trip. Downing Street stresses that the main purpose of visiting the former Soviet republic is economic, given that the Kazakhs have vast reserves of oil and gas. But the British also concede that they are "playing catch-up" in their attempts to secure extraction deals for UK firms after other Western powers have already struck lucrative deals.
The most troublesome element of Mr Cameron's visit is being seen with Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been condemned for human-rights abuses.
Some critics have demanded that Mr Cameron complain about repression while in Astana, the capital. He might have hoped to come home with a few fat contracts, but he will now be expected to confront his new friend in his own home, in order to make it seem like a worthwhile stop on his journey.