ISLAMABAD – Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday as Washington sought to defuse tensions over controversial U.S. drone strikes and Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan.
In the first visit by a U.S. defence secretary in nearly four years, Hagel flew from Kabul to Islamabad to meet the premier and the country’s new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif.
Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been seriously strained over U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt as well as Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s borders.
Prime Minister Sharif “reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process,” a Pakistan government statement said.
“The Prime Minister also conveyed Pakistan’s deep concern over continuing U.S. 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-Qaida militants.
But human rights groups and Pakistani politicians say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and must stop.
After greeting Prime Minister Sharif, Hagel said Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan had a “lot of common and mutual interests” and that 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 U.S. defense official told reporters.
The defence secretary wanted to affirm continued U.S. 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 said NATO shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to 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 U.S. officials to halt the shipments to protect truck drivers ferrying NATO equipment.
Contractors were still concerned over anti-drone protests and the suspension had not been lifted, officials traveling 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.
U.S. officials are anxious to forge a constructive dialogue with Pakistan’s new army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, who is expected to be at the center of sensitive security decisions.
“Issues concerning (the) defense relationship, Pak-U.S. 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 $16 billion in security assistance and “coalition support funds,” U.S. officials said.
Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighboring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hard-line 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 U.S. 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 the country’s president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a long-delayed pact that will allow NATO-led forces to stay in the country after 2014.
Hagel began his trip last week in Bahrain, seeking 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 was due to travel on Monday to 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 Tehran as they view Shiite-led Iran as a regional rival.