US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday as the two nations inch toward repairing vital ties severely damaged by a series of crises.
“I would certainly say that they are moving upwards, in a positive direction,” a senior US Department of State official said, asked about how relations between the two nations were doing after several high-level meetings. “I don’t want to overestimate or oversell what’s occurred.”
“I think we’ve been working in a very diligent, disciplined, workman-like manner over the course of these last 18 months which have been very difficult, and especially over the last several months ... to get this back on track,” the official said.
Ties between Washington and Islamabad plunged to new lows after the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a US commando raid deep inside Pakistan in May last year and after the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops in a US airstrike in November.
The US official said the two sides were moving forward by focusing on “specific, incremental steps” to pursue their common interests.
“I’m very comfortable with the direction that this is headed, but ... we want to be realistic and clear-eyed,” the official said.
Clinton greeted Zardari as “my friend” and introduced him to the new US ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, whom she said had just been sworn in so he could attend their talks.
She also thanked him for Pakistan’s handling of several days of violent anti-US protests, triggered by an amateur anti-Islam YouTube clip made in the US.
“We very much appreciate the strong response of your government,” she said.
Zardari said it had been “a difficult time for all of us.”
Pakistan was rocked by days of protests in its major cities as demonstrations have swept Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia over the film.
“One or two insane persons should not be allowed to endanger world peace in the garb of freedom of expression,” Zardari said in the meeting, according to a statement from the Pakistan embassy.
US officials said the offer of a US$100,000 bounty by Pakistani Minister of Railways Ghulam Ahmed Bilour for the killing of the maker of the film Innocence of Muslims was denounced by the Pakistani leadership at the talks.
“As part of the delegation today was the leader of the party, the AMP, which the railways minister is part of, who also very explicitly disassociated his party from those statements,” the US official said.
He said the party would meet soon “to decide what to do with that minister” as part of an internal process on how to deal with the situation, adding that both delegations had echoed “that anyone who provokes violence cannot be tolerated.”
Friday’s protests in Pakistan left 21 dead, and more than 200 injured as Pakistani police fought back to disperse crowds around US diplomatic missions.
Clinton and Zardari also discussed the situation in Afghanistan, and how to cooperate in achieving stability there.
Peace and stability in Pakistan were tied to peace and stability in Afghanistan, Zardari said.
“No country has paid a higher price for the conflict in Afghanistan than Pakistan,” he said, in the statement.