Kerry visit casts Pakistan more as partner than pariah

The tumultuous relationship between the US and Pakistan is moving in a more positive direction after worsening for years.

Jason Reed/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, Pakistan Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. 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.

On an unannounced visit to Islamabad late Wednesday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry has moved one step closer to rekindling talks of a strategic partnership with Pakistan. The visit is the first by a high-ranking US official since the election of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May.

The negotiations come after years of strained relations between the two countries over the 2011 raid which killed Osama bin Laden, the US’s use of drone strikes, and Pakistani support for Taliban forces fighting in Afghanistan.

But there are hopes for a stronger US-Pakistan relationship under the guidance of Mr. Kerry, who has strong ties to Pakistan, and Mr. Sharif, who many believe can solve some of Pakistan’s political and economic troubles.

The announcement that talks would resume was made after Kerry met with Sharif and other high-level Pakistani officials over issues ranging from Pakistan’s economic and energy woes to the security situation in Afghanistan as US-led NATO forces prepare to withdraw in 2014, reports the BBC. Kerry said the talks were “constructive,” leading analysts to see this as a turning point for tenuous bilateral relations.

The relationship between the two countries hit a low point in 2011, when US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden after raiding his secret hideout, reports the Washington Post. Talks shortly afterwards between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistani officials produced little and were ultimately suspended.

Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan has also been stoked by US drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which killed an estimated 2,800 people in Pakistan between 2002 and 2013, including 366 civilians. In 2011, a US military strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, leading Islamabad to close down vital supply routes into Afghanistan. The supply routes have since reopened, and drone strikes have decreased – though they are still a point of contention.

And Pakistan’s tacit support for Islamist insurgent groups, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, operating in Afghanistan has irked many in the US.

However, both the US and Pakistan see normalizing relations as within their best interests right now, reports Reuters.

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 neighboring Afghanistan next year, both sides will see positives in repairing the relationship.

The security situation is of vital concern to both sides, particularly as US military forces are preparing to wind down operations in Afghanistan next year. According to Voice of America, Pakistan has promised to act as a mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban and to help facilitate peace in the conflict-ridden country. Meanwhile, Kerry has stated his confidence that an agreement will be reached that will see the extension of US troop presence in Afghanistan, reports the BBC.

Both Kerry and Sharif are well positioned to improve relations between their countries. Kerry has a long history with Pakistan, and officials there know and trust him. Kerry was instrumental in passing the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package in 2009, which pledged $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan through 2013. According to The Christian Science Monitor, prior to his appointment as secretary of State, Pakistani officials were optimistic about the prospect of Kerry replacing Ms. Clinton.

And Sharif’s return to government after two stints as prime minister in the 1990s has many hoping that Pakistan is on the road to recovery.This year's election was Pakistan’s first to see a civilian government hand power to another civilian government, marking a democratic milestone for the country.

And he has already made attempts to improve the country’s economy by accepting a $5.3 billion aid package from the IMF, despite some domestic opposition to it and Sharif’s ideological opposition to external interference, writes the New York Times. The move both encourages American investment and demonstrates that Sharif can negotiate pragmatism and ideology.

And more importantly, Sharif has shown increased commitment to cooperate with the US on cracking down on militants, reports Reuters.

Pakistan itself has seen a spate of attacks against its military and civilians by the Pakistani wing of the Taliban since Sharif was sworn in on the back of promises to talk to the insurgents rather than fight them.

Speaking alongside Kerry, Sartaj Aziz, Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, appeared to harden that position, saying his government might resort to the use of military force after all against the Taliban.

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