U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Pakistan this week in his first visit since the country's new government came to power, in what officials cautiously characterized as warming in one of the U.S.'s thorniest foreign relationships.
Mr. Kerry's trip, the highest-level engagement between Washington and Islamabad since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's election in May, comes as the U.S. prepares to withdraw combat troops from neighboring Afghanistan. It provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington's global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.
"Now that you are leaving Afghanistan, let's prepare the foundations of a new relationship that goes beyond Afghanistan," Sartaj Aziz, Mr. Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs and Pakistan's de facto foreign minister, said in a recent interview.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim nation, has had an often fraught relationship with Washington. During the 1980s, Pakistan helped channel U.S. aid to Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviet military. While Pakistan is an ally in the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda, U.S. officials and lawmakers also blame Pakistan for supporting the Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan.
Relations between Washington and Islamabad have partly recovered from the nadir reached in 2011, after the unilateral U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Ties also frayed around that time when a Central Intelligence Agency contractor shot two Pakistanis on the streets of Lahore and a U.S. aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a "friendly fire" incident on the Afghan border.
"In 2011, Pakistan explored alternative allies, while the U.S. thought about how it could pursue its objectives without Pakistan," said a senior U.S. defense official. "But both sides realized that there was no attractive alternative to a strong but more limited security partnership."
The visit could be an occasion to announce the restoration of "strategic dialogue," a term used early in the administration of President Barack Obama to describe a wide-ranging partnership between the two countries, said Aizaz Chaudhry, a spokesman for Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
State Department and Pakistani officials confirmed Mr. Kerry would be traveling to Pakistan soon but didn't specify a date.
U.S. officials said the main task for Mr. Kerry, who is taking time out from pressing initiatives in the Middle East, would be to build a rapport with the new government of Mr. Sharif and agree on a common agenda. But they also cautioned against setting unrealistically high expectations.
"The relationship, in future, will be more realistic and sober, which will not leave both parties disillusioned," said a senior State Department official. "Everyone wants to be more modest. No one wants a repeat of the volatility we saw."
Mr. Kerry is a known quantity in Pakistan: Before becoming secretary of state, he was a frequent visitor to the country as a senator and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier this year, he met Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's powerful military chief, in Amman, Jordan.
Mr. Sharif is also known in Washington. Mr. Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel all know Mr. Sharif from his two previous stints as prime minister in the 1990s and as an opposition leader during the rule of former President Pervez Musharraf.
"To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher on Mikhail Gorbachev, he [Mr. Sharif] is someone the U.S. can do business with, but won't always agree with," said Karl Inderfurth, who was assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs during Mr. Sharif's 1998 visit to Washington.
Pakistan quickly sided with the U.S. in the "war on terror" after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. American aid to Pakistan was just $36 million in 2000, a figure that leapt to an annual $4.3 billion by 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service—putting the country above Israel as a recipient of American largess.
Overall, Pakistan received $25.9 billion in American aid between 2002 and 2012, with two-thirds of that sum going toward security assistance, including reimbursements for stationing Pakistani troops along the Afghan border.
But Pakistani officials say the country's sacrifices in the antiterror fight aren't fully appreciated by the U.S. In 2011, the Pakistani government estimated that the "war on terror" had cost its economy $68 billion. Since 2003, Pakistan has lost more than 17,140 civilians and 5,249 security personnel to terrorist violence, according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal, a website.
Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said the U.S.-Pakistan relationship had "yet to find a new normal," adding: "It needs to find a new pivot that takes it beyond Afghanistan and 2014. The opportunity is there to give it a new overarching strategic direction."
Some experts are skeptical about the prospects for a real shift, saying the U.S. is just keeping an essentially shattered relationship limping along until the end of 2014, while it withdraws from Afghanistan.
"Everyone understands that Pakistan has to be tolerated until the last soldier leaves," said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.
Noting that some members of Congress would like to cut off aid to Pakistan, Ms. Fair added: "There are those in Congress who are angry at Pakistan. They understand that Pakistan has made victory in Afghanistan impossible under any definition of 'victory.'"