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Pakistan aid bill has explosive impact - Jim Lobe

By Jim Lobe

After 10 days of raging controversy centered in Islamabad, United States President Barack Obama on Thursday signed a major aid bill for Pakistan authorizing some US$7.5 billion in non-military assistance for the increasingly beleaguered country over the next five years.

The bill, which will more than triple the current level of non-military aid the US provides to Pakistan, had been designed as a dramatic show of support for the country whose full cooperation is seen as crucial to US hopes of defeating the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and destroying al-Qaeda, whose leadership is believed to be based in Pakistan’s rugged frontier region.

“This law is the tangible manifestation of broad support for Pakistan in the US, as evidenced by its bipartisan, bicameral, unanimous passage in congress,” the White House said, adding that Washington hoped to establish a “strategic partnership” with Islamabad “grounded in support for Pakistan’s democratic institutions and the Pakistani people”.

But, contrary to its intent, congressional passage of the bill on October 5 unleashed a major political crisis in Pakistan itself where the opposition and the country’s powerful army rejected several of the conditions written into the bill as violating the country’s sovereignty and dignity, whipping up already widespread anti-US sentiment in the process.

In an extraordinary “joint explanatory statement” aimed at appeasing that sentiment and annexed to the bill before Obama signed it, the new law’s two main Democratic sponsors, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry and his House counterpart, Howard Berman, insisted that “the legislation does not seek in any way to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty, impinge on Pakistan’s national security interests, or micro-manage any aspect of Pakistani military or civilian operations”.

“This whole thing backfired badly,” rued one administration official, who asked not to be identified. “It’s left a very sour taste in everyone’s mouth, here and in Pakistan.”

The bill’s signing came on the same day that the Pakistani Taliban mounted the latest in a 10-day series of devastating multiple attacks on key army and police facilities that highlighted Washington’s longstanding concerns about the threat posed by the militants, who are regarded as closer to al-Qaeda than their counterparts in Afghanistan.

More than 30 people, including at least 19 police officers, were reportedly killed in several attacks, including one on an elite counter-terrorism training facility, in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. Those attacks came five days after Taliban guerrillas breached the security perimeter of the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi. Twenty-three people were killed in that raid, during which the assailants seized dozens of hostages.

The attacks, which were initially billed as retaliation for the August 5 killing, apparently by a US Predator drone strike, of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, are increasingly seen as designed to ward off a long-promised army ground offensive in the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s main stronghold of South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The military cordoned off the area two months ago, and its air force has recently carried out bombing runs against targets there. The delay in launching the offensive, however, has frustrated officials here who regard it as a major test of the army’s willingness to provide the kind of counter-terrorist cooperation Washington has long sought.

“If South Waziristan is indeed next, that would be a significant development,” said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia specialist and former senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst, at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. Riedel chaired the White House’s review on Afghanistan and Pakistan after Obama came to office.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the US has provided Pakistan some $11 billion in aid, only a fraction of which, however, was devoted to non-military assistance, such as development assistance and support for political and economic reforms.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan was designed in major part to better balance military and non-military aid, particularly in the wake of Islamabad’s return to civilian rule in early 2008, by offering significantly greater support for democratic institutions and civil society. Washington continues to provide about one billion dollars a year to the army.

While the senate version of the bill set a number of general conditions for disbursement of the aid, including a requirement that Pakistan is making “tangible progress in governance”, such as gaining civilian control over the military and the intelligence agencies, the house version was both more specific and more demanding.

Under its terms, Pakistan could receive military aid only if the secretary of state certified that the civilian government exercised “effective civilian control over the military” and “demonstrated a sustained commitment” by “ceasing support” to terrorist groups and “dismantling terrorist bases”.

This last reference focused on Quetta - where the Afghan Taliban leadership is believed to be based - and in Muridke - where a number of anti-Indian groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out last year’s attack in Mumbai, are believed to run operations. These provisions, which could be waived by the president if it served the national interest, were incorporated into the final bill.

They nonetheless were seized on by the military high command in Pakistan which, in a formal communique directed at President Asif Ali Zardari, charged that the bill violated Pakistani sovereignty, an accusation echoed in parliament by the opposition leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leaders of other parties, and the media.

Taken by surprise, Zardari, who had initially celebrated the final bill’s passage as a major achievement of his administration, dispatched his foreign minister to Washington, apparently to try to work out a face-saving solution which came in the form of the two-page “joint explanatory statement” issued by Kerry and Berman.

“Any interpretation of this act which suggests that the United States does not fully recognize and respect the sovereignty of Pakistan would be directly contrary to congressional intent,” asserted the statement.

In an editorial published on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal laid blame for the house version primarily on the 152-member congressional caucus on India and Indian Americans, which includes a number of influential Democratic and Republican lawmakers, for insisting on the offending language.

At the same time, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius complained that the administration, like Zardari, had been taken by surprise by the explosive impact of the bill.

“Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, should have seen this one coming,” he wrote, noting also that the Pakistani army had also manipulated the crisis to its advantage.

“The only benefit I can see here is a perverse one,” he noted. “It may actually be easier for the Pakistani military to battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda if it’s seen by the public as standing up defiantly to American pressure.”

- Jim Lobe’s blog on US foreign policy can be read at

{Source: Asia Times Online}

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