NEW YORK - US Secretary of State John Kerry is travelling to Islamabad this week in his first visit since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government came to power, with a senior State Department official hoping for building a ‘more realistic and sober’ relationship with Pakistan.

“The relationship, in future, will be more realistic and sober, which will not leave both parties disillusioned,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. “Everyone wants to be more modest. No one wants a repeat of the volatility we saw”, obviously referring to the fraying of ties in 2011 following incidents like the unilateral US commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis on the streets of Lahore at the hands of a CIA agent, and the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an attack by an American aircraft along the Afghan border.

Kerry’s trip, the highest-level engagement between Washington and Islamabad since May election, comes as the US prepares to withdraw combat troops from neighbouring Afghanistan. It provides an opportunity to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive US military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global anti-terror campaign, the Journal said, quoting US and Pakistani officials. The US 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, Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, was quoted as saying.

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, Aizaz Chaudhry, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, added.

State Department and Pakistani officials have confirmed Kerry would be travelling to Pakistan soon but didn’t specify a date.

US officials said the main task for Kerry, who is taking time out from pressing initiatives in the Middle East, would be to build a rapport with the new government of Nawaz Sharif and agree on a common agenda. But they also cautioned against setting unrealistically high expectations.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, was quoted by WSJ as saying that the US-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 US is just keeping an essentially shattered relationship limping along until the end of 2014, while it withdraws from Afghanistan, the newspaper said.

“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’.”