Sartaj Aziz, right, Pakistan's special adviser on national security and foreign affairs, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak after an Aug. 1 press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan. (B.K. Bangash/AP)
ISLAMABAD — The United States and Pakistan agreed Thursday to restart high-level talks on security and other issues, yet the two sides still deeply mistrust each other in a relationship frayed by disputes over issues like U.S. drone attacks, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said could end soon.
Kerry’s remarks to Pakistan TV about a possible end to the CIA-led program of drone strikes was the first time an administration official has said the Obama administration wants to end the program. Kerry offered no timetable, and spokeswomen assured reporters he was merely reflecting President Obama’s statements in a speech earlier this year.
Kerry announced the resumption of talks during his first visit to Pakistan as secretary of state. He said the U.S. does not want bilateral relations defined solely by hot-button security issues like counterterrorism and the war in Afghanistan.
“In the last few years we’ve experienced a few differences,” Kerry said, politely understating the testy, roller-coaster relationship with Pakistan. “We cannot allow events that might divide us in a small way distract from the common values and the common interests that unite us in big ways.”
Pakistani officials have been angry about U.S. drone strikes against suspected militants in Pakistan, claiming they violate their sovereignty. They used Kerry’s visit to press the U.S. to stop the drone attacks.
“I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry told the Pakistan TV interviewer. “I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon. I think it depends really on a number of factors, and we’re working with your government with respect to that.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that Obama, in a May 23 speech at National Defense University, said that as the U.S. ends its combat mission in Afghanistan, there no longer will be the same need for force protection in the Afghan war theater and that the work already done to eliminate core al-Qaida militants “will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
“Today, the secretary referenced the changes that we expect to take place in that program over the course of time, but there is no exact timeline to provide,” she said.
Kerry had meetings with newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and national security adviser Sartaj Aziz, and a three-hour discussion with Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashram Parvez Kayani.
In between heavy rains that drenched Islamabad, Kerry visited an electricity substation to highlight U.S. assistance projects to Pakistan where electricity shortages cause rolling blackouts of up to 20 hours a day in some parts of the country. It was a way for Kerry to change the subject from security issues and promote large-scale, U.S.-financed energy projects that have already added 1,000 megawatts to the country’s power grid — enough power to supply electricity to an estimated 16 million people. An additional 200 megawatts is expected to be added by 2014.
The U.S. sees the recent election of Sharif as a chance to open a new chapter in bilateral ties and have talks on a broad range of issues, including Sharif’s signature issues of energy, extremism and the economy. Kerry announced that Sharif had been invited to visit Obama in Washington this fall.
“The relationship is not defined simply by the threats that we face. It is not only a relationship about combatting terrorism,” Kerry said. “It’s about supporting the people of Pakistan, particularly helping at this critical moment for Pakistan’s economic revival.”
Aziz said it is a good time to restart high-level talks because it follows an election where, for the first time in the country’s 66-year history, there was a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. The country has a history of civilian leaders being overthrown in military coups.
“As we look into the future, we want trade, more trade, larger investment, and cooperation in development, including education as the building blocks of a new and renewed partnership,” Aziz said.
Aziz also called for an end to the drone strikes, which Pakistani officials say kill civilians, breed militancy and fuel anti-American sentiment.
“In light of today’s discussion, we will continue this dialogue on how to stop this policy of drone attacks as far as U.S. is concerned,” Aziz said.
Washington says it needs to attack dangerous militants with drones because Pakistan’s government, which says its military is overstretched, refuses to engage them militarily.
The United States has reduced the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan and limited strikes to top targets. There have been 16 drone strikes in Pakistan this year, compared with a peak of 122 in 2010, 73 in 2011 and 48 in 2012, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.
Kerry defended the U.S. drone program.
“I would simply remind all of our friends that somebody like an al-Qaida leader like al-Zawahiri is violating the sovereignty of this country, and when they attack in mosques and blow up people in villages and in marketplaces, they are violating the sovereignty of the country,” said Kerry, referring to al-Qaida’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The U.S. and Pakistan initially launched a high-level dialogue on a wide range of security and development programs in 2010. Those talks stalled in November 2011 after U.S. airstrikes on a Pakistani post on the Afghan border accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad responded by closing NATO supply lines in Pakistan that were used to transport supplies to international troops fighting the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
But even before that, the bilateral relationship was severely damaged by other events, including a CIA contractor shooting to death two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore. Ties were nearly severed by the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, a move that infuriated the Pakistanis, who were not told about it beforehand.
On Friday, Kerry is scheduled to fly to London to meet with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to discuss Egypt, Syria and Middle East peace.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.