U.S., Pakistan Try To Turn A Page With White House Meeting

Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, meets President Obama at the White House on Wednesday. He's the first Pakistani leader to visit the White House in five years. Talks are expected to focus on U.S. security and economic aid, as well as the controversial U.S. drone attacks along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Just by taking office, Pakistan's new prime minister made history. Nawaz Sharif accepted the handoff from another civilian government that actually finished its term. Until then, power had always been transferred through political chaos or coups. The question now is whether Pakistan can broaden that bit of stability in a time of insurgency and economic crisis.

Today, the prime minister visits President Obama in Washington. Relations were strained after the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in 2011. Now, the U.S. is restoring more than $1 billion in security assistance. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he came to Washington representing a new and confident Pakistan, one that's gone through elections and, as he put it, a dignified transfer of power. He also sounded determined to transform relations with Pakistan's neighbors, and with key partners like the U.S.

NAWAZ SHARIF: There is, however, the matter of drone strikes, which have deeply disturbed and agitated our people.

KELEMEN: These remote-controlled planes have been targeting militants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan for much of the past decade.

SHARIF: The use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity, but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country.

KELEMEN: His call for an end to drone strikes comes as White House officials dig in their heels on the issue, describing the operations as precise, lawful and effective. Responding to an Amnesty International report about the high number of civilian casualties in drone strikes in Pakistan, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf quibbled with the numbers.

MARIE HARF: We undertake every effort to limit civilian casualties in our counterterrorism operations. Also, I would note that there's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and non-governmental reports.

KELEMEN: But she refused to elaborate or provide any U.S. figures. Against this backdrop, few analysts expect Pakistan's prime minister to make much headway with President Obama on this very sensitive issue. Still, Moeed Yusuf, director of the South Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where Sharif spoke yesterday, says the prime minister has to raise his concerns about drones.

MOEED YUSUF: You know, drones is a very odd issue because there are still those stories floating around that maybe the Pakistani state had agreed to doing this. So it's very different in public versus private, so I really don't know what happens behind closed doors. What I do know is that this box is checked wherever any Pakistani official goes.

KELEMEN: Yusuf says the two men are coming into their White House meeting with very different agendas. President Obama, he says, wants Pakistan to do more to fight terrorism and promote a reconciliation process in Afghanistan, as the U.S. draws down its forces there.

YUSUF: Those, I think, would top the list. From the Pakistani side it's going to be a very different one. It's going to be business, it's going to be trade, it's going to be a civil nuclear deal, it's going to be drones, so the lists don't really overlap that much. But that's really the diplomatic challenge, to keep the relationship going on a positive footing, without actually giving up whatever you stand for.

KELEMEN: Prime Minister Sharif is making a big pitch here for increased trade and investment in his country. Improving the security situation will be necessary for that, says Robert Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center. That's one area where the U.S. and Pakistan should work together. But like most experts, Hathaway isn't expecting big breakthroughs.

ROBERT HATHAWAY: We have to be very modest about our expectations for the relationship and for this particular visit this week. The two sides disagree in fundamental ways about some of the most important issues on the table. There is not going to be a miraculous meeting of the minds.

KELEMEN: But the tone in relations is, as Hathaway puts it, infinitely better than it was two years ago, after U.S. forces killed Osama bin laden in his villa in Abbottabad and Pakistan temporarily closed key NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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