WASHINGTON - A senior US official has told a Congressional hearing that Pakistan has made democratic and economic progress and that its institutions appear to be withstanding the challenge of the ongoing opposition protests across the country.

"Protests this year have challenged Pakistan’s democratic institutions but they appear to be weathering the storm," Jarrett Blanc, Principal Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said while testifying before a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on Friday.

Describing the relationship with Islamabad as "vital to the national security of the United States", he said "A stable, prosperous Pakistan that plays a constructive role in the region is in both our countries’ interests, and has an acute effect on the region." Blanc also said that the US and Pakistan are planning a ministerial session of their Strategic Dialogue in early 2015, while stressing that dialogue and bilateral cooperation will continue and increase, well beyond the ongoing transitions in Afghanistan.

“We are planning for a Strategic Dialogue Ministerial session early in 2015. Our constructive engagement with Pakistan has garnered results, and will continue to be an important component of our national security strategy going forward,” he said.

At the State Department, spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that Secretary of State John Kerry is eager to visit Pakistan next year. “I don’t have any trips to announce at this point in time. I know the Secretary’s eager to get there in 2015. So hopefully, we’ll have something to announce in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson responded when questioned about dates for the US-Pakistan dialogue and Secretary Kerry’s travel to Pakistan.

In his testimony, Blanc said, "Pakistan is a complex democracy, representing 190 million people and grappling with substantial security challenges. It is often easy to criticise its imperfect progress; however, it is also easy to overlook its successes."

Noting that Pakistan in May last year made its first democratic transition from one civilian government to another in its history, he told the joint hearing that Pakistani military undertook multiple operations seeking to root out terrorism, including a major operation in North Waziristan, that had disrupted militant activity.

"Our security assistance has aided Pakistan in prosecuting the North Waziristan campaign, with a case in point being its ability to strike with precision, including with F-16s, and limiting collateral damage in the process," Blanc told lawmakers. "The operation is the latest phase of Pakistan’s efforts to extend greater government control in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), beginning with Bajaur Agency in 2008 and is the most extensive of the FATA operations conducted to date.

"We recognise that Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists, and its sacrifices are laudable. But it is also clear that the job is not done. Militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, continue to pose a threat to Pakistan, to Pakistan’s neighbours, and to the United States. As such, it is vital that the operation continues and that every effort is made not just to disrupt safe havens and militant networks, but to prevent them from being re-established in the tribal areas and from operating elsewhere in Pakistan.  "We are concerned about public reports of groups being assisted in leaving these areas prior to the operation. Pakistani leaders have told us that they are targeting all militant groups, including the Haqqani Network, and we will hold them to these commitments. In particular we have been very clear with the Pakistani leadership about the need to prevent the re-establishment of Haqqani safe havens, and Pakistani leaders have said publicly that they will not allow this to happen." “In the aggregate, it is a positive trajectory, both in terms of Pakistan and our bilateral cooperation,” Blanc added.

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Elaborating the importance of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, the official said it is the mechanism that underpins intensive cooperation on the shared interests, from counterterrorism to energy to economic growth and defence.

“We expect that this dialogue and cooperation will not only continue, but increase, well beyond the transition in Afghanistan. We also recognise that our engagement with Pakistan is critical to advancing our regional objectives.”