ISLAMABAD: Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel visited Pakistan on Monday for talks as Washington seeks to defuse tensions over controversial United States (US) drone strikes and Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan.
In the first visit by a US defense secretary in nearly four years, Hagel flew from Kabul to Islamabad to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other top officials, including the country’s new army chief.
Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been seriously strained over US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt as well as Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan’s borders.
Hagel visited “in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror,” a senior US defense official told reporters before his arrival.
The defense secretary wants “to deepen our defense partnership” and to affirm continued US military assistance, the official said.
“There is some friction in the relationship” and Hagel wants to tackle that “head on” to try to forge a better understanding between the two countries, he said.
The visit came as Hagel’s deputies withdrew a statement issued on Sunday that said North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to resume due to the end of anti-drone protests.
In recent weeks, activists opposed to the drone raids forcibly searched trucks in northwest Pakistan in a campaign to disrupt NATO supply routes to and from Afghanistan.
The club-wielding protesters have prompted US officials to halt the shipments to protect the safety of truck drivers ferrying NATO equipment.
Contractors were still concerned over anti-drone protests and the suspension had not been lifted, officials traveling with Hagel told reporters.
The crossing is the main overland route used by the Americans and NATO to withdraw tons of military hardware from Afghanistan as part of a massive troop pullout set to wrap up by the end of 2014.