By Deb Riechmann
ISLAMABAD (AP) — 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.