By Julie Pace
AP White House Correspondent
WASHINGTON – Seeking to improve a rocky relationship, President Barack Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday pledged cooperation on the security issues that have strained ties between their nations. But the sources of the long-standing tensions did briefly bubble to the surface.
Speaking alongside Obama in the Oval Office, Sharif said he brought up the issue of American drone strikes during their two-hour meeting, “emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.” For his part, Obama made no mention of drones, which have stoked widespread resentment in Pakistan where many believe targeted strikes by the armed unmanned aircraft kill large numbers of civilians.
The mere fact that Obama and Sharif met was seen as a sign of progress. Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan peaked in 2011 following the U.S. raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden and the accidental killing of two dozen Pakistani troops in an American airstrike along the Afghan border that same year.
Since then, there have been signs of progress. Pakistan, which closed off some U.S. supply lines out of Afghanistan in retaliation for the deaths of its troops, reopened the routes last year. And ahead of Sharif’s visit, the U.S. quietly decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan that was suspended in 2011.
Obama acknowledged that there will always be some tension between the U.S. and Pakistan.
“It’s a challenge. It’s not easy,” he said. “We committed to working together and making sure that rather than this being a source of tension between our two countries, it can be a source of strength.”
Washington has warmly welcomed Sharif, who arrived on Sunday for his first visit to the U.S. capital since taking office in June. He dined with Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials and was hosted at a breakfast meeting Wednesday at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence. Sharif’s wife was also the guest of honor at a tea and poetry reception hosted by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife.
A military honor guard also lined the driveway leading to the West Wing of the White House as Sharif arrived for his meeting with Obama.
Obama and Sharif talked on the phone earlier this year, but they had never met in person. Sharif, who served two earlier stints as Pakistan’s prime minister, was scheduled to meet with other top U.S. officials while in Washington this week.