The agenda for Sharif’s talks with President Obama, Cabinet officials and lawmakers is fraught with touchy subjects, such as the administration’s ongoing, if diminished, drone strikes against suspected terrorists harbored in Pakistani territory, congressional reluctance to continue large aid programs and Pakistan’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal.
But neither country wants to return to the roller-coaster relations that touched bottom in 2011, when a U.S. raid in Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden and a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the country’s border with Afghanistan.
“There were hiccups in 2011 and 2012, but we truly believe things are getting better,” said Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser.
A senior State Department official echoed those sentiments. “For a variety of reasons, there’s a bit more optimism and hope in the relationship, I think, on both sides than there has been for a while,” said the official, who, like several others interviewed, was not authorized to discuss the subject on the record.
To reflect and encourage the improvement in relations, the Obama administration has moved to speed the release of more than $1 billion in previously approved military and economic assistance — as well as promised compensation to the Pakistani military for counterterrorism expenses — that has been doled out sparingly in recent years.
The optimism comes despite Sharif’s aggressive stance toward the continued drone strikes, which analysts in both countries said he has little choice but to condemn because the attacks are deeply unpopular in Pakistan.
Two weeks after he took office, Sharif lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy after a drone strike killed seven militants in North Waziristan in the country’s restive tribal region. He also spoke out against the strikes — which have totaled about 20 this year — in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month.
The Obama administration has its complaints, including what officials think is ongoing support for Afghan militant groups in the tribal areas by the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The ISI is thought to turn a blind eye to movement across the Afghan border by members of the Haqqani network, who, among other things, are held responsible for last month’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. The intelligence agency is also suspected of facilitating travel documents for Haqqani figures to visit funders in Persian Gulf states.