WASHINGTON (AP) — In the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, the mere fact that President Barack Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are sitting down together at the White House is seen as a sign of progress.
Few breakthroughs were expected on the numerous hot-button issues on their agenda Wednesday, including American drone strikes and Pakistan's alleged support for the Taliban. But officials in both countries are hoping to scale back tensions that escalated after the 2011 U.S. strike within Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden and last year's accidental killing of two dozen Pakistani troops in an American airstrike along the Afghan border.
"We want to find ways for our countries to cooperate, even as we have differences on some issues, and we want to make sure that the trajectory of this relationship is a positive one," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Sharif was welcomed to the White House Wednesday afternoon by a military honor guard lining the driveway leading to the West Wing. Vice President Joe Biden also held a breakfast meeting with Sharif and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a tea and poetry recital for the prime minister's wife.
Obama and Sharif talked on the phone earlier this year, but they have never met in person. Sharif, who served two earlier stints as Pakistan's prime minister, has held face-to-face talks with Secretary of State John Kerry and was scheduled to meet with other top U.S. officials while in Washington this week.
The prime minister's visit to the White House comes one day after Amnesty International released a report providing new details about the alleged victims of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, one of them a 68-year-old grandmother hit while farming with her grandchildren. In Pakistan, there is widespread belief that American drone strikes kill large numbers of civilians and Sharif is expected to raise the issue with Obama.
The White House responded to the Amnesty report by defending the drone program, with Carney saying U.S. counterterrorism operations "are precise, they are lawful and they are effective."
Also on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting will be Obama's looming decision on whether to keep any American troops in Afghanistan after the war there formally concludes at the end of next year. Ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, the U.S. is seeking to push through a peace deal with the Taliban and Afghan government.
Pakistan is seen as key to this process because of its historical connection to the Taliban. It helped the group grab power in Afghanistan in 1996 and is widely believed to have maintained ties as a hedge against neighbor and nuclear rival India — an allegation denied by Islamabad.
Ahead of his trip to the U.S., Sharif said he planned to ask Obama for American intervention in resolving the dispute between Pakistan and India in Kashmir.
On Wednesday, India accused Pakistani troops of firing guns and mortars on at least 50 Indian border posts overnight in Kashmir. Indian troops returned fire, but one Indian guard was killed and six were injured by a shell fired at the Arnia post in the Jammu region, he said.
Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid rejected the idea of U.S. involvement, saying Kashmir was a "bilateral issue between India and Pakistan."
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC