ISLAMABAD, Oct 28 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off a visit to Pakistan on Wednesday, fending off criticism of US policies from within a key ally in the war on Islamists and promising new investments.
Clinton is the most senior US official to visit the nuclear-armed Muslim state since US President Barack Obama put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda and made the war in neighbouring Afghanistan a top priority.
"We are turning a page on what has been in the last several years primarily a security anti-terrorist agenda," Clinton told reporters travelling with her.
"It remains a very high priority. But we also recognise that it’s imperative that we broaden our engagement with Pakistan," she added, pledging that the United States wanted to "strengthen democracy" and civilian institutions.
Her arrival comes at a critical juncture for Pakistan, where a rising number of audacious attacks has shown Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked extremists can target anyone at anytime, and with the military pressing a major offensive.
The Pakistan-US alliance can be uneasy particularly among the general public in both countries. The United States, which is heavily committed in Afghanistan, relies on Pakistan for regional stability and to fight militants.
Pakistan, whose government is cash-strapped and the economy battered, relies on US cash and weapons to fight against extremism and militancy.
Clinton acknowledged there can be "misunderstanding" and "miscommunications", but stressed that the Obama administration was committed to building a long-term relationship with the troubled country.
"Nine months is not a long period of time to turn around a relationship that has a lot of scars," Clinton told reporters.
"It’s fair to say that we have really increased the level of conversation and sharing of information over nine months," Clinton said.
The United States is keen to bolster the civilian government, whose relations with the powerful military have been fraught, following on from a massive 7.5 bilion dollar non-military aid package already signed into law.
The military and political opposition slammed the package — designed to help Pakistan fight Islamist insurgency by building schools, training police and strengthening democracy — for allegedly violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Clinton said she was "concerned" by opposition to the aid bill, which she reiterated imposed no conditions on Pakistan and pledged further assistance.
"We will be making some announcements about some of the investments we are making with Pakistan on the civilian side," she added.
Pakistanis want good jobs, to improve their incomes, to secure reliable sources of energy, education and healthcare, she said. Related article: Suicide bombers in Pakistan
Around 30,000 troops are pressing an assault against Pakistani Taliban fighters holed up in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border where US officials say Al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on the West.
Clinton said it was "important to recognise the high price the Pakistanis are paying" in the war on Islamist militancy and said the United States "admired" what the Pakistani military was doing in Waziristan.
"They (the military) are extraordinarily committed and we have to support them the way we can," said Clinton, who is expected to meet some of the more than 200,000 people who have been displaced by the latest offensive.
During her three-day visit, she is due to hold talks with the political and military leadership, meet those displaced by the conflict in Waziristan, the political opposition and reach out to civil society to improve the US image.
"Were trying to reach more broadly into the society," she said in a bid to reverse "misconceptions" about the United States in Pakistan.