By David Alexander
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will travel to Pakistan on Monday for talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other senior officials, as the first Pentagon chief to visit Islamabad in nearly four years, a spokesman said.
Hagel announced the Pakistan trip while talking to U.S. troops at Camp Leatherneck in southwestern Afghanistan, where he is on a two-day visit to consult with senior U.S. and Afghan officials and pay a holiday tribute to American forces.
The Pakistan visit comes amid renewed tensions over U.S. drone strikes as well as a threat to U.S. equipment being shipped from Afghanistan across Pakistan to the port of Karachi.
The Pentagon said a week ago that protests over a U.S. drone strike prompted a temporary suspension in the shipments of U.S. equipment across Pakistan through the Torkham Gate border crossing near the Khyber Pass.
Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said it has been nearly four years since a U.S. defense secretary visited Pakistan, a large recipient of U.S. aid to reimburse countries for their effort in support of the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan.
The last U.S. defense secretary to visit the country was Robert Gates in January 2010.
Woog said Hagel met Sharif during his visit to Washington earlier this year and “looks forward to continuing candid and productive conversations about our important security partnership and how to address common threats”.
Woog said Hagel would talk to Sharif and other Pakistani leaders about their shared interest in a stable future for Afghanistan as the United States withdraws forces from the country following a dozen years of war.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the supply routes across Pakistan, known as the Pakistani ground lines of communication, had largely been open since July 2012, with a few brief exceptions.
The official said the most recent decision to suspend shipments across Pakistan had been taken on the Afghan side of the border because of the drone protests and concern for the safety of the drivers. But he said the suspension had been brief and had been lifted.
“It’s my understanding that the protests never actually interdicted or blocked that route,” the official said. “The suspension was a short-term suspension based on concerns about security. It was a self-imposed restriction, it wasn’t due to a blockage of the route. The protests have died down.”
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Andrew Roche)