ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Pakistanis on Thursday he hoped U.S. drone strikes in their nation would end “very, very soon,” a message meant to ease anti-American resentment in the strategic country.
After meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Kerry said they had agreed to re-establish a “full partnership”, hoping to end years of acrimony over the drone strikes and other grievances including the May 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In a television interview later, Kerry said of the drone strikes, “I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.”
“I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon,” he told Pakistan Television, when asked whether the U.S. had a timetable for ending drone strikes aimed at militants in Pakistan.
Kerry’s comments went further than those of President Barack Obama, who said in a May 23 speech that the need for drone strikes would decrease in “the Afghan war theatre” as U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014.
But Obama did not speak of ending drone strikes entirely and his speech offered a detailed justification for the tactic “against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”
U.S. drone missiles have targeted areas near the Afghan border, including North Waziristan, the main stronghold for various militant groups aligned with al Qaeda and the Taliban, since 2004. Pakistanis have been angered by reports of civilian casualties and what they see as an abuse of their sovereignty.
U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have fallen significantly over the past 2 1/2 years, totalling 17 so far this year, versus 48 in all of 2012 and 73 in 2011, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation.
It was unclear if, in their lengthy face-to-face talks, Sharif asked Kerry to halt the drone attacks.
When asked whether Pakistan wanted the United States to curtail the strikes, his foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, told reporters, “We are asking them to stop it, not just curtail it.”
Besides the drones and the killing of bin Laden in 2011, relations have been strained by Pakistan’s support for Taliban insurgents fighting Western troops in Afghanistan as well as by a NATO air attack in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.
“I want to emphasize the relationship is not defined simply by the threats we face, it is not only a relationship about combating terrorism, it is about supporting the people of Pakistan, particularly helping at this critical moment for Pakistan’s economic revival,” Kerry told reporters.
A new government in Pakistan and a new secretary of state in Washington have increased hopes the two sides can allay their grievances - something both hope to gain from, with Pakistan’s economy badly needing support and the United States aiming to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan next year.
Kerry, who as a senator sponsored legislation to provide $7 billion in assistance to Pakistan over five years, said he had invited Sharif to visit the United States, Pakistan’s biggest donor, for talks with Obama.
“What was important today was that there was a determination ... to move this relationship to the full partnership that it ought to be, and to find the ways to deal with individual issues that have been irritants,” he said.
Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center think tank, said he believed Washington had no intention of ending drone strikes in Pakistan before the end of 2014, when it pulls troops out of neighbouring Afghanistan.
Kugelman said while the rhetoric had been toned down, the drones dispute and a proposal by Sharif for peace talks with the Pakistani branch of the Taliban would fuel tensions.
Kugelman said talks with the Pakistani Taliban, a loose alliance of al Qaeda-linked militants fighting to topple the Pakistan government, could threaten U.S. security interests in Afghanistan at a time when the Obama administration is trying to orchestrate an orderly withdrawal.
“Behind the bonhomie, trouble lurks,” Kugelman said in a opinion piece “Instead of depicting Kerry’s Pakistan visit as a prelude to an extended period of goodwill, we should simply regard it as a respite from the tensions.”
But both sides expressed a willingness to overcome their grievances and to start afresh.
Ties have improved fractionally since last year after the two sides reached a deal to reopen land routes used to supply Western troops in Afghanistan that were cut off after the air strike in November 2011 that killed Pakistani soldiers.
Kerry announced the relaunching of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, broad based talks focused on security, economic and development issues, which broke down in 2010 amid worsening tensions between the governments.
A senior U.S. official said high-levels were likely to occur late this year or early in 2014.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Maria Golovnina and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Mike Collett-White and Peter Cooney