TOKYO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed hope Sunday that Pakistan's recent reopening of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan might lead to a broader rapprochement in U.S.-Pakistani relations after a difficult period for the reluctant allies.
After attending a 70-nation Afghan aid conference in Tokyo, Clinton met privately with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to discuss reviving the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which has suffered a series of debilitating crises over the last year-and-a-half but is still seen as critical for the stability of South Asia.
It was their first meeting since Clinton's apology last week for the November killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO, a move that led to the end of Pakistan's seven-month blockade of the supply routes.
"We are both encouraged that we've been able to put the recent difficulties behind us so we can focus on the many challenges ahead of us," Clinton told reporters. "We want to use the positive momentum generated by our recent agreement to take tangible steps on our many shared, core interests."
The most important of these, Clinton said, was fighting militant groups. They have used Pakistan as a rear base to attack American troops and jeopardize the future of Afghanistan.
She and Khar "focused on the necessity of defeating the terror networks that threat the stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the interests of the United States," Clinton said.
Last week's accord helped repair ties that have been torn over everything from a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis to the unilateral U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound. The November incident was the deadliest among the allies in the decade-long fight against al-Qaida and other extremist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.
Pakistan's reaction in closing the border cost the U.S. at least $700 million, as it rerouted supplies across more expensive northern routes. The final bill may have been significantly greater.
Clinton, who joined the Pakistani minister and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul for a three-way meeting later Sunday, said her discussions with Khar covered stalled Afghan reconciliation efforts. The U.S. is counting on Pakistan to help convince the Taliban and other groups fighting the Afghan government to halt violence and enter into a political dialogue.
They spoke as well about enhancing U.S.-Pakistani economic ties to make it a relationship defined more by trade than aid.
A joint statement by the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan "reaffirmed the importance of pursuing multiple channels and contacts" with militants seeking to overthrow the Afghan government.
It said reconciliation would be discussed during Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's upcoming visit to Kabul and Afghan mediator Salahuddin Rabbani's visit to Islamabad.
"These visits should determine and implement additional concrete steps to advance Afghan reconciliation," the statement said.
Still, Clinton acknowledged the lingering difficulties hindering U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, without getting into details.
Washington has been perpetually bothered by its perception of Islamabad's half-hearted commitment to snuffing out the support given by its intelligence services to the Taliban and the Haqqani network— assistance that Washington sees as a threat to the Afghan war effort.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's government has to contend with rampant anti-American sentiment and the unpopularity of U.S. drone strikes against militant targets within its borders.
In Lahore, Pakistan, thousands of hardline Islamists set out Sunday in a convoy of some 200 vehicles bound for the capital to protest the government's decision to allow the U.S. and NATO to resume shipping military supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
Riding atop buses and waving party flags, protesters yelled anti-U.S. slogans. "One solution for America, jihad, jihad!" they shouted.
After the four-hour journey to Islamabad, the demonstrators planned to rally in front of the parliament building.
In Tokyo, Clinton called the U.S.-Pakistan alliance a "challenging but essential relationship."
"I have no reason to believe that it will not continue to raise hard questions for us both," she said. "But it is something that is in the interests of the United States as well as the interests of Pakistan."