Islamabad: The United States and Pakistan agreed yesterday to re-establish a “full partnership”, hoping to end years of acrimony over US drone strikes on Pakistani soil, the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden and other grievances.
“We are here to speak honestly with each other, openly about any gaps that may exist that we want to try to bridge,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said during an unannounced visit to Islamabad. “Our people deserve that we talk directly.”
Besides the killing of Bin Laden in a Pakistani town by US Navy SEALs in 2011, bilateral ties have also been severely strained by Pakistan’s support for Taliban insurgents fighting Western troops in Afghanistan as well as a Nato air attack in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.
Both sides are now keen to overcome the grievances and start afresh, a shift in priorities they hope is possible with a new government in Pakistan and a new secretary of state in the United States.
With Pakistan’s economy badly in need of support and the United States keen on smoothly withdrawing most of its troops from neighbouring Afghanistan next year, both sides will see positives in repairing the relationship.
Speaking after talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, Kerry - who as a senator sponsored legislation to provide $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion) in assistance to Pakistan over five years — said the two countries were serious about overcoming past irritants.
He invited Sharif to visit the United States — Pakistan’s biggest donor — for talks with US President Barack Obama.
“America does not want to have a transactional relationship, we do no want to have a relationship based on one moment or based on issues such as counter-terrorism or Afghanistan,” Kerry said.
Determination to move
“What was important today was that there was a determination...to move this relationship to the full partnership that it ought to be, and to find the ways to deal with individual issues that have been irritants over the course of the past years.”
He added: “And I believe that the Prime Minister is serious about doing that. And I know that President Obama is also.”
Kerry, who arrived in Pakistan late on Wednesday, is the most senior US official to visit Islamabad after Sharif’s election in May.
“It is also no secret that along this journey in the last few years we’ve experienced a few differences,” Kerry said.
“I think we came here today, both the prime minister and myself, with a commitment that we cannot allow events that might divide us in a small way to distract from the common values and the common interests that unite us in big ways.”
While this is Kerry’s first visit to Islamabad as secretary of state, he has a long history of dealing with Pakistan as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sharif described him as “a wonderful friend,” and Kerry said, “I have had the pleasure of visiting (Sharif’s) home and having a number of meals with him.”
Before heading into a closed-door meeting, Sharif asked Kerry about his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was hospitalised after a seizure last month. “She’s doing better,” Kerry said.
Sharif came to power in an election that marked the first time in Pakistan that a civilian government completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections. The country has a history of civilian leaders being overthrown in military coups.
“This is a historic transition that just took place,” Kerry told US Embassy employees. “Nobody should diminish it.”
Yet, continued US drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s northwest remain a big hurdle. The use of drones is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan and anti-US feelings run deep in parts of the South Asian country.
Drone missiles have been hitting targets since 2004 in troubled areas on the Afghan border such as North Waziristan, the main stronghold for various militant groups aligned with Al Qaida and the Taliban.
Speaking about the future of US-led forces in Afghanistan, Kerry said he was confident the United States would reach agreement on future troop levels in a timely way.
“We are drawing down, not withdrawing,” he said. “I am personally confident we will have an agreement and the agreement will be timely.”