U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Monday as Washington sought to defuse tensions over the controversial U.S. drone program and Islamabad's role in Afghanistan, a week after the United States halted ground shipments across NATO supply routes.
In the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary in nearly four years, Hagel flew from Kabul to Islamabad to meet the premier and the country's new army chief, General Raheel Sharif.
U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt as well as security along the Afghan border have strained ties between Washington and Islamabad. Protests by anti-drone activists prompted the U.S. to suspend ground shipments of NATO cargo leaving Afghanistan via Pakistan last week.
Prime Minister Sharif "conveyed Pakistan's deep concern over continuing U.S. drone strikes, stressing that drone strikes were counterproductive to our efforts to combat terrorism."
President Barack Obama has defended the drone strikes as an effective and lawful tool used with restraint to target suspected Al-Qaeda militants.
But human rights groups and Pakistani politicians say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and must stop.
Hagel was in Pakistan "in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.
Hagel wanted to affirm continued U.S. military assistance to the country, the official said. "There is some friction in the relationship," and Hagel wished to tackle that "head on," he said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Central Information Secretary, Shireen Mazari, said in a press release Monday that it was Islamabad's "unflinching position on drones" and the stoppage of the NATO supply activities that had led to the U.S. visit.
Mazari said her government “should now put its foot down and demand that the U.S. halt drones as they were unacceptable, illegal" and added that Amnesty International, an international human rights NGO, had "declared them a war crime.”
Hagel and Sharif also discussed Pakistan's role in Afghanistan. During the meeting, the prime minister “reaffirmed Pakistan's support for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process," a Pakistan government statement said.
In recent weeks, activists opposed to U.S. drone raids forcibly searched trucks in northwest Pakistan in a campaign to disrupt NATO supply routes through the Torkham Gate border crossing.
The protesters have prompted U.S. officials to halt the shipments to protect truck drivers ferrying NATO equipment.
Contractors were still concerned over anti-drone protests and the suspension had not been lifted, officials travelling with Hagel said.
Torkham Gate is the main overland route used by the Americans and NATO to withdraw military hardware from Afghanistan as part of the troop pullout set to wrap up by the end of 2014.
Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighboring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the Taliban regime in Kabul from 1996 to 2001 and is believed to shelter some of the movement's leaders.
Hagel visited Pakistan after two days in Afghanistan, where he urged the country's president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a long-delayed security pact that will allow NATO-led forces to stay in the country after 2014.
While the Afghan parliament has authorized Karzai to sign the agreement, the president has thus far refused and wait until Afghan presidential elections in 2014.
Al Jazeera and wire services