By Deb Riechmann Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting Thursday with top Pakistani leaders, hoping the U.S. can open a new chapter in Washington’s often testy relationship with Islamabad.
Islamic extremism, the war in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistani opposition to U.S. drone strikes are expected to highlight Kerry’s talks with newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashram Parvez Kayani.
Sharif came to power in Pakistan’s first transition between civilian governments. “This is a historic transition that just took place,” Kerry told U.S. Embassy employees in Islamabad. “Nobody should diminish it.”
Kerry also addressed rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, partly caused by the unpopular U.S. drone attacks on Islamic extremists.
“I know that sometimes — sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes you get a little harassment or somebody says, ‘Why are you working for the Americans?”’ Kerry told Pakistanis.
Senior administration officials traveling with Kerry told reporters that while relations with Pakistan have grown touchy in recent years, there is the prospect of resetting those ties with Sharif’s government and working together on major issues — counterterrorism, energy, regional stability, economic reforms, trade and investment. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss Kerry’s agenda.
The U.S. wants to help strengthen the role of the civilian government in Pakistan, where the military long has been dominant, and wants Sharif to tackle rising extremist attacks inside his country.
The prison break this week that freed hundreds of inmates raises serious questions about Pakistan’s ability to battle an insurgency that has raged for years and killed tens of thousands. Suspected Islamic militants killed at least 160 people during the new government’s first month in office. Sharif’s government has not articulated an alternate strategy.
The U.S. also wants Pakistan to pressure leaders of the Afghan Taliban to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, renounce violence and sever ties with al-Qaida.
Officials in neighboring Afghanistan are demanding that Pakistan dismantle extremists’ havens inside Pakistan and push the Taliban to join the peace process. Both the U.S. and Afghanistan say that if attacks are allowed to continue, the region will never become stable. Pakistani officials say they do not control the Taliban, but Karzai’s government isn’t convinced.
Drone strikes are another point of contention.
Washington says it needs to attack dangerous militants with drones because Pakistan’s government refuses to engage them militarily. Pakistan contends the drone strikes are a fresh violation of its sovereignty, and they have increased widespread anti-American sentiment in the country.
The United States has reduced the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan and limited strikes to top targets. These moves appear to have appeased Pakistan’s generals for now, U.S. officials said. But some officials worry about pushback from the new civilian officials, including Sharif, who wants the attacks ended.
There have been 16 drone strikes in Pakistan this year, compared with a peak of 122 in 2010, 73 in 2011 and 48 in 2012, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.