U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrived in Pakistan on Monday for talks on a range of security issues, including the contentious use of U.S. drones against militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions, which have been a flashpoint of tensions between the two countries in recent years.
Hagel’s visit, which is the first by a U.S. defense secretary in four years, came days after the main supply route for transporting goods to foreign troops in Afghanistan was blocked by Pakistani protesters in a retaliatory measure against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Hagel’s visit also follows Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Washington trip in October and Secretary of State John Kerry’s unannounced visit to Islamabad in August.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Sharif held talks with Hagel on issues of “mutual interest” and also conveyed “deep concern over continuing US drone strikes, stressing that drone strikes were counter-productive to our efforts to combat terrorism and extremism on an enduring basis.”
Meanwhile, cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who heads Pakistani political party Tehreek-e-Insaf, which called for the blockade of the main supply route, threatened to block all NATO supply routes in Pakistan. He had earlier issued a warning that the main route blockade would not be lifted until the U.S. suspended its drone attacks.
Shireen Mazari, the information secretary of Tehreek-e-Insaf, on Monday, urged the government to ascertain Pakistan’s position against drone attacks, Associated Press reported. The Pakistani government had said earlier that it did not support the blockade, but has taken little action to stop the protesters.
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In the past, Islamabad has blocked NATO supply routes to protest against U.S. drone strikes that accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November 2011. The routes were reopened after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret over the incident, ending a seven-month deadlock in talks with Pakistan.
Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid and could likely receive $305 million in military aid in 2014 and $858 million in civilian assistance, according to a Reuters report. Prior to his arrival in Pakistan, Hagel visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan and also held talks with Afghan officials, Reuters reported.