Updated: 12/09/2013 16:10 | By Agence France-Presse

Afghanistan focus at Hagel talks with Pakistan PM

Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel held talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday as Washington seeks to defuse tensions over controversial US drone strikes and Islamabad's role in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan focus at Hagel talks with Pakistan PM

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) speaks to US troops at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan on December 8, 2013

In the first visit by a US defence secretary in nearly four years, Hagel flew from Kabul to Islamabad to meet the premier and the country's new army chief General Raheel Sharif.

Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been seriously strained over US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt as well as Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan's borders.

After greeting Prime Minister Sharif at the start of their talks, Hagel said Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan had a "lot of common and mutual interests" and that he looked forward to discussing regional issues.

Hagel was in Pakistan "in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror", a senior US defence official told reporters.

The defence secretary wanted "to deepen our defence partnership" and to affirm continued US military assistance, the official said.

"There is some friction in the relationship" and Hagel wished to tackle that "head on", he added.

The visit came as Hagel's deputies withdrew Sunday's statement that said NATO shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to resume due to the end of anti-drone protests. 

In recent weeks, activists opposed to the drone raids forcibly searched trucks in northwest Pakistan in a campaign to disrupt NATO supply routes through the Torkham gate border crossing. 

The club-wielding protesters have prompted US officials to halt the shipments to protect the safety of truck drivers ferrying NATO equipment.

Contractors were still concerned over anti-drone protests and the suspension had not been lifted, officials travelling with Hagel said.

Torkham gate is the main overland route used by the Americans and NATO to withdraw military hardware from Afghanistan as part of the troop pullout set to wrap up by the end of 2014.

President Barack Obama has defended the drone strikes as an effective, lawful tool used with restraint to target suspected Al-Qaeda militants.

But human rights groups and Pakistani politicians say the missile attacks have killed innocent civilians and must stop.

US officials are also anxious to forge a constructive dialogue with the new army chief General Raheel Sharif, who is expected to be at the centre of decision making on sensitive security questions.

"Issues concerning defence relationship, Pak-US bilateral ties and regional stability came under discussion," the Pakistan military said after Hagel met the army chief, who last month succeeded General Ashfaq Kayani.

Pakistan is seen as crucial to peace in neighbouring Afghanistan as it was a key backer of the hardline 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Kabul and is believed to shelter some of the movement's leaders.

Pakistan is also battling a homegrown Islamist insurgency but US officials have long accused Islamabad's spy service of maintaining ties to the Afghan Taliban, as a hedge to counter any potential threat from India in Afghanistan.

Hagel visited Pakistan after two days in Afghanistan, where he urged the country's president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a long-delayed security agreement that will allow NATO-led forces to stay in the country after 2014.

Hagel began his trip last week in Bahrain, seeking to reassure Gulf allies that the United States would retain a robust military presence in the region despite an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

After morning meetings in Pakistan, Hagel was due to travel to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where he was expected to renew his message of solidarity with the Gulf Arab states.

The Saudis in particular are wary of the diplomatic opening with Tehran as they view Shiite-led Iran as a regional rival.

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