AFP – Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on Monday that US drone strikes were “counter-productive” as Washington tried to ease tensions with Islamabad.
In the first visit by a US defence secretary for nearly four years, Hagel flew from Kabul to Pakistan to meet the premier and the country’s new army chief, General Raheel Sharif.
Ties have been seriously strained over US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt as well as over sanctuaries for Afghan Taliban insurgents inside Pakistan’s borders.
Sharif “reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process”, a Pakistan government statement said after the talks.
“The Prime Minister also conveyed Pakistan’s deep concern over continuing US drone strikes, stressing that drone strikes were counter-productive to our efforts to combat terrorism.”
President Barack Obama has defended the drone strikes as an effective, lawful tool used with restraint to target suspected Al-Qaeda militants.
But human rights groups and Pakistani politicians say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and are a beach of sovereignty.
After greeting Sharif, Hagel said Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan had a “lot of common and mutual interests” and he looked forward to discussing regional issues.
Hagel was in Pakistan “in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror”, a senior US defence official told reporters.
The defence secretary wanted to affirm continued US military assistance, the official said.
“There is some friction in the relationship” and Hagel wished to tackle that “head on”, he added.
The visit came as Hagel’s deputies withdrew Sunday’s statement that NATO shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan would resume due to the end of anti-drone protests.
In recent weeks activists opposed to the drone raids forcibly searched trucks in northwest Pakistan in a campaign to disrupt NATO supply routes through the Torkham gate border crossing.
The club-wielding protesters have prompted US officials to halt the shipments to protect the truck drivers.
Contractors were still concerned at the protests and the suspension had not been lifted, officials travelling with Hagel said.
Torkham gate is the main overland route used by the Americans and NATO to withdraw military hardware from Afghanistan as part of the troop pullout set to wrap up by the end of 2014.
US officials are anxious to forge a constructive dialogue with Pakistan’s new army chief Sharif, who is expected to be at the centre of sensitive security decisions.
“Issues concerning (the) defence relationship, Pak-US bilateral ties and regional stability came under discussion,” the Pakistan military said after Hagel met the army chief.
Since 2002, Washington has given Pakistan more than $16bn in security assistance and “coalition support funds”, according to US officials.
Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardline 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to shelter some of the movement’s leaders.
Pakistan is also battling a homegrown Islamist insurgency, but US officials have long accused Islamabad’s spy service of maintaining ties to the Afghan Taliban.
Hagel visited Pakistan after two days in Afghanistan, where he urged President Hamid Karzai to sign a much-delayed pact that will allow some NATO forces to stay in the country after 2014.
Hagel began his trip last week in Bahrain, trying to reassure Gulf allies that the United States would retain a robust military presence in the region despite an interim nuclear deal with Iran.
Hagel left Pakistan on Monday for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where he was expected to renew his message of solidarity with the Gulf Arab states.
The Saudis in particular are wary of the diplomatic opening with Shiite-led Iran, which they see as a regional rival.