Pakistan's army objects publicly to conditions on U.S. aid

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 7, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's army said Wednesday that it has "serious concern" over conditions attached to a $1.5 billion a year U.S. aid package that Congress approved last month, marking a serious rupture in relations with Washington just before a planned military operation against the Taliban and al Qaida.

The dispute pits Pakistan's powerful army against the fragile civilian government of the Pakistan Peoples Party, which has championed the U.S. assistance deal. Pakistan's political opposition also opposes the aid legislation, which awaits President Barack Obama's signature.

The aid bill, sponsored in the Senate by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, was meant to improve the U.S. image in Pakistan. It requires monitoring and certification of Pakistan's action against terrorism and requires the country to work to prevent nuclear proliferation and show that its military isn't interfering in Pakistani politics.

"Everyone wants aid. The problem is the conditions, which are tantamount to holding Pakistan hostage to U.S. designs," said Marvi Memon, an opposition member of parliament. "This is a complete affront to national sovereignty."

The furor appears to have caught the Obama administration by surprise and threatened the basis of its Pakistan policy, which aims to bolster the civilian government, provide aid to ordinary people in Pakistan and push for action against Islamic extremism. By contrast, the Bush administration backed a military leader in Pakistan and focused aid on the military.

The Pakistani military has said that within days it will launch an offensive in Pakistan's Waziristan region, the heart of the nation's Islamic insurgency and a refuge for Afghan insurgents and Osama bin Laden's terror group. Washington has long urged Islamabad to take control of Waziristan, an ungoverned territory on the border with Afghanistan that's almost entirely controlled by militants.

Obama met with his senior national security advisers Wednesday to discuss strategy toward Pakistan, the latest in a series of White House sessions on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Pakistanis shouldn't see the conditions attached to the U.S. aid as diluting its authority.

"We are stewards of U.S. taxpayer funds. We have to build in certain consultation mechanisms, monitoring mechanisms," Kelly said. "These are in no way intended to impinge on Pakistan's sovereignty."

With the Pakistani military now joining the parliamentary opposition in hostility to the aid bill, however, the there was speculation that the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari could fall. Pakistan was already in the grip of a rising wave of anti-Americanism.

"Insult!" was the front-page headline Wednesday in The News, a Pakistani daily.

The army's top officers met to discuss the legislation at a corps commanders' conference at the military headquarters at Rawalpindi.

The chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, "reiterated that Pakistan is a sovereign state and has all the rights to analyze and respond to the threat in accordance with her own national interests," said a statement issued after the Wednesday meeting.

In Pakistan's parliament, the opposition made loud demands to reject the aid package. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament that the U.S. legislation was "not binding on us" and said that the army was "working under the civilian government."

"This bill is an attempt by the American taxpayer to give socioeconomic aid to the poorest sections of Pakistani society," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament for the ruling party and a top aide to Zardari. "It is an act of affirmation of a major democracy for another democracy."

On a visit to Washington, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, speaking for the country's civilian political leadership, played down concerns over the aid bill and said most Pakistanis see it as a "very strong signal" of long-term U.S. backing.

"Yes, we could have issues with language. Yes, it could have been better-drafted," Qureshi said in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Yes, some of the sensitivities should have been catered (to). But the broad intention and the objective of the bill I don't think anybody is in disagreement with."

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Kerry, said the bill has "been mischaracterized in some quarters." He said there are no conditions attached to non-military aid.

"The conditions on military aid don't require anything of Pakistan that isn't already the stated policy of the government and opposition parties," Jones said.

Pakistan is widely accused of backing Taliban insurgent groups in Afghanistan and militant groups that target arch-enemy India. The bill demanded that the "dismantling of terrorist bases of operations" in areas including Quetta, the Western Pakistani city that's said to house Mullah Omar, the founder and leader of the Afghan Taliban, from where he runs the so-called "Quetta shura," or leader council, of the Taliban.

Spokesmen for Kerry and Lugar said Congress won't revisit the bill and that it's on course to be signed by Obama.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Warren P. Strobel and William Douglas contributed to this article from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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