KABUL, Afghanistan -- In his debut diplomatic swing, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is sidestepping Pakistan for fear that Pakistanis could misinterpret a 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 the United States, the top U.S. diplomat thought it was prudent to keep a distance before the national elections in May.
When completed, 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 Kerry was eager to visit Pakistan and plans to do so when 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 officials. He met Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani for dinner in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday night.
But anti-American feelings are running high in Pakistan, sharpened by public anger over drone strikes that many Pakistanis consider violations of the country’s sovereignty. Polls consistently indicate that Pakistan is one of the most anti-American countries in the world, with approval ratings of the U.S. routinely scraping below 10%.
Kerry’s decision shows the delicacy of U.S. dealings with Pakistan, an unstable country with a nuclear arsenal and 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. U.S. officials said another factor in Kerry’s decision not to stop in the country was that there would have been no diplomatic counterpart for him to meet with.
Kerry’s visit to Afghanistan will also be sensitive.
As the Obama administration lays plans for a limited continuing U.S. presence after the last combat troops depart at the end of next year, American 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 to the country as Pentagon chief, that the United States and the Taliban are colluding in Afghanistan so that they can both retain a presence in the country.
Tensions have eased slightly since then. U.S. and Afghan officials have 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 has visited Afghanistan five times in the last 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.