WHITE HOUSE —
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan are due to meet Wednesday at the White House. They will discuss a relationship marked by tensions in recent years, including the issue of U.S. drone attacks.
The talks come amid signs of improvement in a relationship that while unsteady, is one Washington describes as extremely important to U.S. regional and global security.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Sunday as he met with the Pakistani leader.
"The relationship with Pakistan could not be more important. On its own, a democracy that is working hard to get its economy moving and deal with insurgency and also important to the regional stability," he said.
The U.S. recently released more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid suspended after relations deteriorated following the 2011 U.S. special forces raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin-Laden.
Relations were also strained by a NATO air strike that mistakenly killed Pakistani border guards, and an incident in which a CIA contractor killed two men in Lahore, Pakistan.
Obama has spoken of the crucial role for Pakistan as American and other foreign forces move closer to a planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But in Pakistan, one major issue of concern remains the drone strikes the United States continues to carry out, though on a lower scale, targeting suspected al-Qaida and militants.
"There is however the matter of drone strikes, which have deeply disturbed and agitated our people," said Sharif, who spoke Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter says it is healthy for the debate over drones to be occurring at this time.
"Talking about drones and the difficulties that drones have posed as an issue is only the prelude to talking about counter-terrorism and the way in which both countries decide they are going to work together or not," he said.
Dan Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the United States and Pakistan are not in alignment over which groups are targeted by drones.
"Both of them are willing to go after al-Qaida core leadership to some extent and both of them are certainly willing to go after Pakistani Taliban," he said. "There has been difference of opinion on Afghan Taliban and in particular [the] Haqqani network which the U.S. has seen as being affiliated with al-Qaida, has been wanting to target and has been targeting with drones, and which Pakistan sees as being less of a threat and certainly not a direct threat to Pakistani civilians or the Pakistani state."
Human rights groups critical
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports Tuesday detailing civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes and calling for more transparency from the Obama administration.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States is reviewing the reports, but reiterated Obama's defense of the legal framework for use of drones.
"To the extent these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree," he said. "The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counter terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law."
Obama spoke about the drone issue during a major speech on U.S. counterterrorism policy last March.
"By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life," he said.
Under Obama drone strikes in Pakistan reached a peak in 2010, but have sharply decreased.
Sharif spoke on Tuesday of the need to leave in the past a "trust deficit" in U.S.-Pakistan relations. But it is clear that the drone issue will continue to be one of the most challenging issues for both sides.