ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan and Afghanistan sealed a landmark trade deal Sunday as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed the two neighbors to step up civilian cooperation and work together against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Shortly after kicking off a South Asia trip aimed at refining the goals of the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, Clinton looked on as the Afghan and Pakistani commerce ministers signed the trade agreement. It was reached only after years of negotiation with recent and very active U.S. encouragement.
The pact, which eases restrictions on cross-border transportation, must be ratified by the Afghan parliament and Pakistani Cabinet. U.S. officials said they believe it will significantly enhance ties between the two countries, boost development and incomes on both sides of the border and contribute to the fight against extremists.
"Bringing Islamabad and Kabul together has been a goal of this administration from the beginning," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "This is a vivid demonstration of the two countries coming closer together."
Despite the agreement, Clinton faces challenges in appealing for greater cooperation between the neighboring nations on the nearly 9-year-old war, pressing Pakistan for more help in taking on militants accused of plotting attacks on the United States, including the failed Times Square bombing, and stepping up action against extremists along the Afghan border.
Although Pakistan has relented on issuing long-delayed visas for some 450 U.S. officials and Clinton is bringing new U.S. development aid for Pakistan, anti-American sentiment remains high.
In talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, ahead of meetings today with military and civilian officials, Clinton was conveying the message that the U.S. is committed to the country's long-term development needs, not just short-term security gains.
Clinton is offering a package of about $500 million in development programs, funded by legislation approved by Congress to triple nonmilitary aid to $1.5 billion a year over five years. The aid will focus on water, energy, agriculture and health. The initiatives mark the second phase of projects begun under a new and enhanced strategic partnership.
Holbrooke noted that when Clinton visited Pakistan in October she had "waded into continually hostile and skeptical crowds." But he maintained that the new U.S. focus is "producing a change in Pakistani attitudes, first within the government and gradually, more slowly, within the public."
After her stop in Pakistan, Clinton is set to attend a conference on Afghanistan Tuesday in Kabul, where Afghan officials will present details on their plans to reintegrate militants into society and outline how they intend to implement reform and anticorruption pledges made earlier this year.