TOKYO (Reuters) - The U.S.-Pakistani relationship remains challenging for both despite the reopening of Pakistani land routes to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday.
Clinton last week apologized for a November NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and Islamabad responded by reopening the overland supply routes that are crucial to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
The supply route deal removed one headache, but ties are likely to remain strained by other differences. These include Pakistan’s opposition to U.S. drone strikes aimed at militants on its territory and Washington’s allegations that Islamabad condones, or even assists, anti-American militants.
Speaking after she met Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Clinton said both were encouraged they had “put the recent difficulties behind us” but she acknowledged the difficulties in the relationship in blunt terms.
“I have said many times that this is a challenging but essential relationship. It remains so. And I have no reason to believe it will not continue to raise hard questions for us both,” Clinton told a news conference in Tokyo, where both officials attended an Afghan donors’ conference.
“But it is something that I think is in the interests of the United States as well as in the interests of Pakistan.”
Clinton said that the top issue she discussed with Khar was “the necessity of defeating the terror networks that threaten the stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as interests of the United States” and its allies.
The United States has pressed Pakistan to pursue the Taliban and its allies, especially the Haqqani network, which it blames for a series of attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan.
During their one-hour meeting, Clinton urged Khar to put pressure on the Haqqani network, said a senior U.S. official, who acknowledged that it was unclear whether Pakistan would step up its counter-terrorism efforts.
“In terms of counterterrorism, my answer is we’ll see,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“In many ways, the fact that the (land routes) were closed was getting in the way of a lot of conversation with Pakistan. Now that (they) are open, we have an opportunity, it seems to me, to go back into business with them and counter-terrorism is one of those areas. So, we’ll see,” he added.
Pakistan chafes at U.S. drone strikes inside Pakistan and has long complained that the United States has overlooked its contribution to the fight against militants - scores of al Qaeda fighters were apprehended in Pakistan with American help - and the threat Pakistanis themselves face.
U.S. officials regarded the supply routes as particularly important as the United States and its NATO partners plan to withdraw the bulk of the 128,000 soldiers they have deployed in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Clinton delivered the U.S. apology, long sought by Pakistan, in a telephone conversation with Khar last week.
Some in Pakistan oppose the decision to reopen the supply lines, and around 2,000 supporters of hardline religious groups rallied in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday to protest the move. They plan to travel to the capital of Islamabad in a “long march” to demonstrate against the re-opening of the routes.
After their bilateral talks, Clinton and Khar both met Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul, smiling and laughing as they staged a three-way handshake for photographers.
The three issued a statement that emphasized their desire for militants to lay down their arms and enter reconciliation talks with the Afghan government. Washington wants Islamabad to bring the Haqqani network into talks, but is wary of exerting too much pressure on Pakistan and further straining ties.
Additional reporting by Mubasher Bokhari in Lahore; Editing by Ron Popeski and Jeremy Laurence