By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took part today in what a senior defense official called a “positive, warm and engaging” meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, Finance Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar, National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz, and other officials also took part in the meeting.
Greeting his host beforehand, Hagel told Sharif that he had just left Afghanistan, adding, “We have a lot of our common interests and mutual interests we can discuss.”
The secretary also conveyed President Barack Obama’s regards to Sharif.
“I bring you greetings from President Obama. He very much appreciated the meeting he had with you when you were in Washington,” Hagel said.
That’s all of the engagement that reporters could see, but senior defense officials who took part in the subsequent discussion said the dialogue was friendly, wide-ranging, and roughly evenly split among four topics:
– U.S. and coalition forces’ ground supply transport routes through Pakistan;
– Regional security; and
– Pakistan’s economy.
The issues are linked, said officials, noting that while none were resolved today, all were amicably discussed and will be worked on further.
It was the leaders’ fourth meeting, officials said, but the first time a secretary of defense has visited the country since then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates did so in January 2010.
Hagel and Sharif met during the Pakistani leader’s visit to Washington in late October. The two leaders became acquainted when Hagel was a senator.
Between Gates’ visit three years ago and Hagel’s today, animosity has flared between the two nations over several issues. Most notably, a November 2011 combat engagement near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in which 24 Pakistani troops were killed when U.S. forces responded to what they reportedly thought was an enemy attack.
Following that tragedy, Pakistan closed some of its border crossings to U.S. and coalition forces. The United States then suspended aid to Pakistan, which has resumed since Islamabad reopened the ground supply routes.
Relations have improved in recent months, with high-level engagements and discussion resuming, and senior officials today said Hagel’s visit is a good step toward resuming what was, just a few years ago, a promising military-to-military relationship.
Officials said the men agreed broadly on counter-terrorism goals, but agree they “need to discuss means.” Pakistani officials and leaders have regularly protested the United States’ use of unmanned drones in counter-terrorism operations.
The ground supply routes are open, but the main route at Torkham Gate hasn’t seen supplies flow through at all in December, officials said, because protests on the Pakistani side of the border pose a security risk.
Afghanistan, regional security and Pakistan’s economy are related issues, officials said: regional trading relationships, secure transportation routes and international investment are all linked, one official explained.
“[Pakistanis] really need a stable neighborhood to enhance and increase their trade, and bring in hard currency,” one official said.
According to Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog, the secretary emphasized that as International Security Assistance Forces draw down over the course of 2014, U.S. and coalition partners remain resolved to not let militants destabilize the region.
Another senior official noted that today’s meeting was “a launching point for a continued dialogue on these issues.” Specific approaches toward resolving the issues immediately were not discussed in this meeting, which was more strategic in nature, he added, but it was “a very good dialogue.”
Hagel’s first stop after arriving in Pakistan was Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, where he met with newly appointed Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif.
From Pakistan, Hagel will travel on to Saudi Arabia and Qatar before returning to Washington. His first stop on this trip was Bahrain, where he spoke at the Manama Dialogue on U.S. Middle East strategy.
(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: at @ParrishAFPS)
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