ISLAMABAD (AFP) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday invited Pakistan’s prime minister to talks with President Barack Obama, seeking to upgrade fractious ties dominated by rows over drone strikes and Islamist militants.
The United States’ top diplomat extended the invitation to the newly elected Nawaz Sharif for the highest-level Pakistan-U.S. talks since January 2011, before a series of crises plunged relations to their lowest level.
Both sides announced the resumption of ministerial-level strategic dialogue, which had been frozen since the U.S. killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan has been a vital but prickly ally in the U.S.-led war on Al-Qaeda, and Kerry said it was now time to move beyond transactional ties to a fully fledged relationship.
“We do share a long-term vision of the relationship and I believe that in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif we have someone who’s committed to try to grow that relationship,” Kerry told reporters.
“I have extended on behalf of the president of the United States an invitation to Prime Minister Sharif to meet with the president at a bilateral meeting with him in the United States this fall.”
Pakistani support for the U.S.-led NATO combat mission in landlocked neighboring Afghanistan has been vital, despite demands that Islamabad do more to crack down on safe havens for Afghan and foreign militants based in its northwestern tribal belt.
Kerry said he was confident that Washington and Kabul would reach a long-term security agreement that would allow American troops to remain in neighbouring Afghanistan beyond 2014.
“We’re making progress, we’re working on it. I am personally confident that we will have an agreement,” Kerry said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks on the deal in June, furious that a Taliban liaison office in Qatar appeared to have been opened as an embassy for a government in waiting.
“Let me be clear: the U.S. is drawing down not withdrawing,” Kerry said.
A major thorn in Pakistani-U.S. relations have been U.S. drone strikes on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives, which Islamabad officially condemns despite leaked documents showing private support.
U.S. insistence that Pakistan does more to eradicate militants has also infuriated many in the country, where the government says 40,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorism since 2001.
Besides the militant safe havens in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt, which Washington says threaten Afghanistan and the West, Pakistan is suffering from its own Taliban-led insurgency.
Sharif has made economic growth and resolving the energy crisis the top priority of his new administration, but Kerry stressed that prosperity depends on doing more to eliminate militant havens.
“Pakistan cannot realise its full economic potential until it overcomes extremists,” Kerry told the news conference.
“The choice for Pakistanis is clear: will the forces of violent extremism be allowed to grow more dominant, eventually overpowering the moderate majority?”
But striking a diplomatic note, he said it would take a “united effort” from all countries to resolve the issues of safe havens for militants and thanked Pakistan for its assistance in albeit still stalled Afghan reconciliation efforts.
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are mired in distrust. While the West has praised Pakistani support for peace efforts, many Afghans consider Pakistan an abettor of the Taliban.
Kerry paid tribute to Sharif’s election, which marked the first time that an elected civilian Pakistani government had completed a full term in office and handed over to another at the ballot box.
“I also want to applaud the people of Pakistan for the remarkable, historic transition that has taken place here in Pakistan… the march towards democracy in Pakistan is something to be celebrated.”
Pakistan’s top diplomat Sartaj Aziz reiterated “concern” about drone strikes and said he had briefed Kerry on “the initial contours” of the new government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
But when questioned about drone strikes, Kerry tackled complaints about “violations of sovereignty” by pointing the finger at Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, believed to be based in Pakistan.
“An Al-Qaeda leader like Al-Zawahiri is violating the sovereignty of this country. And when they attack people in mosques and blow up people in villages and market places they are violating the sovereignty of the country,” he said.
Sharif described Kerry as a “wonderful friend”.
“I am very happy that he is the secretary of state of the United States of America today and I hope to have very good discussions and talks with him,” the prime minister said.
Kerry is later expected to meet the outgoing President Zardari and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.