Kerry avoids Pakistan, makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Published: Monday, March 25, 2013 9:50 a.m. CDT

(MCT) KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State John Kerry is sidestepping Pakistan in his debut worldwide diplomatic swing for fear that ordinary Pakistanis could misinterpret the visit as American meddling in the country’s historic effort to choose a new civilian government, U.S. officials said Monday.

Briefing reporters as Kerry arrived in Afghanistan for talks with President Hamid Karzai, a senior administration official said that “given the state of conspiracy theories” in a country that is deeply suspicious of America, the top U.S diplomat thought it was prudent to keep a distance before the national elections in May. They will represent the first time Pakistan has peacefully elected one civilian government to replace another.

“We wanted to be holier than the pope,” said the official. He added that the secretary was eager to visit and plans to do so after a new government is in place after the May election.

Kerry has already visited more than a dozen countries in Europe and the Middle East since taking over in January from Hillary Rodham Clinton, and has cordial relations with a number of senior Pakistani offiicals. He met Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani for dinner in Amman on Sunday night.

But anti-American feelings are running high in Pakistan, sharpened by public anger over drone strikes that many Pakistsanis consider violations of the country’s sovereignty. Polls consistently show Pakistan to be one of the most anti-American countries in the world, with approval ratings of the U.S. routinely scraping below 10 percent.

Kerry’s decision shows the delicacy of U.S. dealings with Pakistan, an unstable country with a large nuclear arsenal that is also a haven for violent extremists.

Pakistan’s last government has resigned, as provided by the country’s rules, and a caretaker prime minister has been nominated to lead until the elections. The officials said another factor in Kerry’s decision not to stop in Pakistan was that there would have been no diplomatic counterpart for him to meet with, had he gone.

Kerry’s visit to Afghanistan will also be sensitive.

As the administration lays plans for a limited continuing U.S. presence after the last combat troops depart at the end of next year, U.S. officials have been clashing repeatedly with Karzai. The Afghan president embarrassed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier this month by declaring, during Hagel’s first visit, that the United States and Taliban are colluding in Afghanistan so that they can both retain their presence in the country.

Tensions have eased slightly since then. U.S. and Afghan officials have finally completed a deal to hand over control of the prison at Bagram Air Base, after months of disagreement on whether some prisoners the United States considers highly dangerous could be released. A deal was announced Saturday.

Kerry, who visited Afghanistan five times in the past four years, often at the Obama administration’s request, will discuss a full range of issues related to the upcoming transition during his one-day visit, officials said.

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©2013 Los Angeles Times

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