Pakistan Drone Strikes to End Soon, Kerry Says on Visit

Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama hopes to soon end U.S. drone strikes aimed at terrorists in Pakistan that have fed tensions between the two countries.

“The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said today in an interview in Islamabad with Pakistan TV. “I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

Kerry is sending a message on his first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state that the U.S. wants to repair ties by focusing on issues that unite the two countries rather than having a relationship centered narrowly on counterterrorism.

The visit by Kerry, who arrived last night, is the first by a top U.S. official since Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister in May. The countries’ strategic dialogue, last held in 2010, stalled after the U.S. discovered and killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town, and a U.S. airstrike on a military post near the Afghan frontier killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

“Our common interests far exceed and far outweigh any differences,” Kerry told reporters today at a press conference with Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s adviser on security issues and foreign affairs. The resumption of comprehensive talks will “foster a deeper, broader and more comprehensive partnership between the two countries,” he said.

The visit comes at a rare moment when there’s no crisis in a relationship that has been marked by tensions over the U.S. drone strikes and disputes about whether Pakistan is doing enough to combat terrorist groups that operate in the country and cross over into Afghanistan.

Not ‘Transactional’

“We specifically wanted to make it clear that the U.S. doesn’t want to have a transactional relationship,” Kerry said. “We don’t want to have a relationship just based on issues such as counterterrorism, or Afghanistan. We want relationship with the people of Pakistan for the long term.”

Sharif has been critical of the U.S. policy of attacking high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan’s tribal northwest using drones and vowed to stop them during his successful election campaign.

“We also shared our concerns on the drone strikes, which Pakistan not only considers as violation of our sovereignty but also counterproductive as they undermine overall counterterrorism efforts,” Aziz said today.

The secretary of state invited Sharif to visit Obama, and he cited the 40,000 Pakistani deaths during the country’s fight with terrorism as evidence of the price it has paid. The U.S.- Pakistan relationship will be pivotal to American plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. While the announcements mark progress in the relationship, erasing distrust will take longer.

‘Deep Hole’

“One has to keep expectations low for any dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship,” Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview from Washington before today’s meeting. “We have been in a very deep hole for a long time. At end of the day, we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them. That’s true on both sides.”

After Kerry’s Pakistan trip he will make a stop in London for meetings en route back to Washington, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Relations remain delicate after a tumultuous 2011, when a U.S. raid killed al-Qaeda leader bin Laden, who was living in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The deaths of two dozen Pakistan soldiers compounded the falling out. Pakistan closed resupply routes for American forces in Afghanistan for more than six months.

Market Access

The U.S. has provided Pakistan with $26 billion “in direct, overt U.S. aid and military reimbursements” since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service, support that continued amid mutual distrust over each country’s motives in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan is seeking greater market access from the U.S. and its help in building a $12 billion dam in the northwest to overcome the country’s worst ever energy crisis, Aziz said at the joint press conference.

Kerry’s visit was kept secret until his arrival because of the daily terrorism threats in Pakistan. It comes days after a pair of market bombings that killed scores of civilians, a fatal ambush on Pakistani border guards and a jailbreak by militants that freed 250 prisoners.

The string of attacks underscores the two sides’ differences over terrorism and how to respond.

Kashmir Dispute

“Most Pakistani leaders still see their national interest in terms of competition with India and resolving the Kashmir dispute,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said in an interview, referring to the disputed territory claimed by both Pakistan and India.

“The jailbreak, the attack on the police station -- these should be top reasons for concern,” said Haqqani, a professor at Boston University. “But fighting terrorism is somehow not Pakistan’s priority.”

U.S. drone strikes on suspected militants were tacitly accepted by Pakistan’s leaders until the public turned against them as a violation of sovereignty and a cause of civilian casualties.

The drone dispute has undercut goodwill the U.S. sought through a $7.5 billion, five-year commitment to economic assistance, a program sponsored by Kerry when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A smooth U.S. exit from Afghanistan will depend on Pakistan’s cooperation in the logistical pullout, as well as its support for Afghan peace talks and willingness to stop aiding extremists in Afghanistan.

Afghan Pact

Kerry said today he remained confident the U.S. will agree a security pact with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to ensure a long-term American military presence in the country.

“Pakistani military and intelligence services still don’t want to put aside the idea of somehow running the Afghan government,” said Haqqani, author of the forthcoming book “Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States and the History of an Epic Misunderstanding.” “They have not yet accepted that jihadism is a fundamental threat to Pakistan as a modern state.”

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment, said the U.S. is encouraged by Sharif’s campaign rhetoric listing as priorities the economy, energy and domestic extremism.

While Sharif took office pledging to halt U.S. drone strikes, he was elected with a perceived mandate and leverage to act against homegrown terrorism, another U.S. official in Pakistan said.