WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama praised the movement of U.S.-Pakistani relations toward a strategic partnership on Wednesday even as his national security team sought greater pressure on extremist safe havens in Pakistan.
Obama told visiting officials attending the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue — including Foreign Ministers Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani — he would not visit Pakistan during his trip to South Asia this year. But he said he would travel to Pakistan in 2011 and would host President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington as well.
Obama underscored the importance of the strategic dialogue “in moving our relationship toward a true partnership based on mutual respect,” the White House said in a statement. Both sides agreed “on the importance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcome in Afghanistan,” it said.
The meeting with Obama came on the opening day of the third round of the strategic dialogue, a series of wide-ranging talks aimed at broadening relations between the two countries beyond the war against Islamist insurgents.
Officials will discuss everything from water to energy in the three days of talks, but the dominant element was the ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and the strain the conflict has put on bilateral relations.
Qureshi praised Obama’s decision to visit Pakistan but signaled Islamabad’s displeasure at the kinds of shortcomings in the relationship that led to a recent cross-border helicopter incursion that killed two Pakistani border guards.
“The global fight against terrorism has advanced thus far essentially on the basis of international cooperation,” Qureshi told an audience at the Brookings Institution. “Actions are required that reinforce and not undercut such counterterrorism operations. We have stated before and I reiterate again, Pakistan’s sovereignty is and will remain non-negotiable.”
Qureshi said the war against insurgents was “a strategic and moral imperative” with Pakistan and the country would not waver in its resolve “to fight extremism and terrorism as our nation has suffered the most at the hands of the scourge.”
But Obama discussed the war in the Afghan-Pakistan border region with his national security team before meeting with the Pakistani delegation. The security team talked about Afghan reconciliation efforts and “the need to increase pressure on extremist safe havens” in Pakistan, the White House said.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said later the two sides had made “a great deal of progress” in the war against Islamist insurgents but “there is much more that can be done.”
The strategic dialogue is organized into 13 working groups, four of which met on Wednesday — water, agriculture, communications and defense. The other nine groups will meet over the next two days. The meetings conclude in a plenary session on Friday led by Qureshi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Key issues were a multi-year U.S. military funding package for Islamabad and floods that inundated an Italy-sized swath of Pakistan in August, causing $9.7 billion in damages. But security issues were expected to dominate.
“I want to be clear to you that as we talk about water and energy and women’s empowerment and communications and agriculture, we also talk intensively and extensively about how to improve our mutual efforts against the terrorist threat,” Holbrooke said.
During a session at the Pentagon, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Kayani discussed long-term security aid for Islamabad.
Gates also apologized to Kayani for the cross-border incursion by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan that killed two Pakistani border guards, a spokesman said.
The incident soured ties between the two allies and prompted the closure of a border crossing near the Khyber Pass, barring trucks ferrying supplies to NATO forces for 10 days.
“Pakistani-U.S. relations have taken a hit in the past few weeks,” said Mark Quarterman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s actually very timely that the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is occurring after this period so they can sit down and clear the air.”
Analysts said two sides in the dialogue would try to reach a common understanding of where they are headed in Afghanistan.
“The objective of the strategic dialogue will be to get us as close as possible to the same strategic page in Afghanistan and to make a public declaration to that effect,” said Teresita Schaffer, the head of the South Asia Program at the CSIS.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Chris Allbritton and Zeeshan Haider in Islambad; Editing by Xavier Briand