WASHINGTON - In a conference call with reporters on the basis of anonymity, an American administration official said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was expected to raise the issue of drone strikes, which, he said, was part of the ongoing counter-terrorism discussions between the US and Pakistan.

In this context, the official referred to President Obama’s recent speech at the National Defence University in which the US leader said that drone strikes would be limited.

Asked about Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, the official said that there has not been an “iota of change” on its policy on Kashmir - meaning that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. “On Kashmir, our policy has not changed an iota,” he added. The official was specifically asked about PM Sharif’s statement in London on his way to Washington that he would reiterate his call for US help in settling the Kashmir issue.

“We expect India to come up at some point (during the Obama-Sharif meeting). We have been very encouraged by steps that both India and Pakistan has taken,” the senior administration official said listing out the various steps taken by the two countries in this regard, including the recent meeting between the two prime ministers, Manmohan Singh, and Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

“Obviously (they are) very positive,” the official said, adding that the Obama Administration is encouraged by steps the two countries have taken to resolve issues on the trade and energy side, in keeping with the “energy and economy theme” that Obama and Sharif would explore here. The economic relationship, the official said, are particularly important.

On the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, one administration official repeated the US stand, saying the project was not a good idea.

Meanwhile, Pakistani and American experts on South Asia say the two sides must build trust as they go forward into a new phase in relationship.“But neither country wants to return to the roller-coaster relations that touched bottom in 2011, when a US raid in Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden and a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the country’s border with Afghanistan,” the Washington Post remarked.

Pakistan’s support for Afghan reconciliation and availability of its overland routes are considered crucial to a smooth withdrawal of American combat troops from landlocked Afghanistan, as the lingering conflict comes to an end by 2014.

The Post report says compared with Nawaz Sharif’s last visit to Washington in 1999, he is now a much stronger political leader.

“On Sunday, Prime Minister Sharif returns here for an official visit in a far more secure position. He was elected in May in Pakistan’s first-ever transfer of power from one civilian government to another, his party holds a firm parliamentary majority,” in reference to the 1999 coup and currently the military’s moving away from politics.

According to the paper, US officials acknowledge that Sharif, who has adopted a clear-cut stand on the drones issue, has sent numerous signals that he is ready to reduce tensions. In late June, they credited his government with helping nudge the Afghan Taliban to Qatar for an attempt to jump-start peace talks between the insurgent group and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. On Afghanistan, both countries have their own respective concerns. Pakistan worries about whether post-war Afghanistan will be stable and well-financed enough to prosper.

If security tops the Obama administration’s agenda, Pakistan’s economy tops Sharif’s, US officials say.

Meanwhile, The New York Times observed in a report that the White House has set a warm tone for the Obama-Sharif session, officially stating that the meeting would highlight the “resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship” and further cooperation on trade and economic development, regional stability and the fight against extremism.

A report in the paper cited recognition that relations have been gradually improving since 2011 events.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, defended the US assistance for Pakistan, saying renewed aid was “part of a long process of restarting security assistance cooperation after implementation was slowed during the bilateral challenges of 2011 and 2012.”

“US security assistance continues to build the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities of Pakistan’s security forces, which is critical to countering violence in the western border regions,” Ms Harf told the paper in an email.

The spokeswoman added that civilian aid had “continued uninterrupted.” Civilian aid, she stressed, had “delivered real results on the issues most important to Prime Minister Sharif and all Pakistanis: energy, education, and economic growth.”