US President Barack Obama promised Wednesday to consider Pakistan’s concerns in post-war Afghanistan, but stayed mum on a call by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to end drone strikes.
Obama welcomed Sharif to the White House after releasing $1.6 billion in aid — mostly for the military — that had been blocked amid high tensions over the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
With US forces preparing to pull out of Afghanistan next year, Obama pledged to brief Sharif fully and to work toward an Afghanistan that is “stable and secure, its sovereignty respected.”
“I’m confident that, working together, we can achieve a goal that is good for Afghanistan, but also helps to protect Pakistan over the long term,” Obama told reporters at the Oval Office.
Many Afghans view Pakistan suspiciously due to its past support for the Taliban regime, which was toppled in the US-led invasion that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In a joint statement, Sharif and Obama urged the Taliban to engage in talks on a peace agreement with the Afghan government — an initiative that quickly faltered after a first step in June.
But on a discordant note, Sharif urged an end to the US campaign of drone strikes against extremists. The attacks have infuriated many Pakistanis who see them as violations of the country’s sovereignty.
Sharif called for greater counterterrorism cooperation with Washington but said: “I also brought up the issue of drones in our meeting, emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.”
Obama did not mention drones and the two leaders did not take questions.
In their statement, Obama and Sharif “stressed that our enduring partnership is based on the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Despite the public statements, The Washington Post said it had obtained secret documents that confirmed widespread suspicions that Pakistan tacitly approved US strikes and sometimes even picked targets.
The newspaper covered several years of frequent attacks until 2011, well before Sharif’s election in May.
Amnesty International said in a report Tuesday that the United States may have violated international law by killing civilians. It pointed to an attack in October 2012 in which a 68-year-old grandmother was blown to pieces as she picked vegetables.
The White House responded by defending drone strikes, saying that it takes great care to avoid civilian deaths and that the remote-controlled attacks are more precise than other methods to target extremists.
Pakistan has in the past voiced alarm at the impending US withdrawal of its more than 50,000 troops from Afghanistan, resenting the growing influence of its historic rival India since the fall of the Taliban regime.
But Sharif, who has won over skeptics in Washington since he swept back to power in May, steered clear of usual Pakistani criticisms of India or blaming of outside interference for his country’s ills.
Sharif told Obama that “terrorism constitutes a common threat” for Pakistan and India, which has urged Islamabad to do more to rein in extremists.
“We need to ally our respective concerns through serious and sincere efforts without indulging in any blame game,” Sharif said.
Obama hailed Sharif’s recent statements that India and Pakistan — nuclear-armed powers that have fought three full-fledged wars — have wasted money through their arms race that could have contributed toward development.
“I think he is taking a very wise path in exploring how decades of tension between India and Pakistan can be reduced,” Obama said of Sharif.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Sharif last month but linked any further reconciliation to progress on concerns.
In particular, India wants action against militants involved in the deadly 2008 siege of Mumbai, some of whom live virtually in the open in Pakistan.
Obama pledged that the United States would help Sharif as he embarks on a “bold agenda” and praised his economic reforms, which include efforts to increase Pakistan’s minuscule tax revenue.
“Not all of them are easy, but they promise to put Pakistan’s finances and economy on a more stable footing,” he said.
On a lighter note, Obama — who has put off a visit to Pakistan due to tensions — recalled that he traveled to the country in 1980 and developed “a great love for the Pakistani people.”
Obama said he visited due to his two Pakistani college roommates, whose mothers taught the future president how to cook daal, keema “and other very good Pakistani food.”