By Deb Riechmann
ISLAMABAD: A new set of players but the same lingering issues are confronting John Kerry on his first visit to Pakistan as U.S. secretary of state: the fight against extremism, American drone attacks inside the country and the war in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration hasn’t sent its top diplomat to Pakistan since 2011, and Kerry’s trip is a chance for the former senator to get to know the newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who came to power in Pakistan’s first transition between civilian governments.
Kerry arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday evening, and planned meetings today with civilian and military leaders, including Sharif.
Senior administration officials traveling with Kerry said that while relations with Pakistan have grown touchy in recent years, there is the prospect of resetting those ties with Sharif’s government and working together on major issues — counterterrorism, energy, regional stability, economic reforms, trade and investment. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss Kerry’s agenda.
The United States wants to help strengthen the role of the civilian government in Pakistan, where the military long has been dominant, and wants Sharif to tackle rising extremist attacks inside his country.
The prison break this week that freed hundreds of inmates raises serious questions about Pakistan’s ability to battle an insurgency that has raged for years and killed tens of thousands.
“The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is badly in disrepair. It has been for some time, and the Pakistanis don’t seem to be in any hurry to fix it,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who has served as a senior adviser to the past four U.S. presidents.