ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The U.S. Senate approved legislation Thursday to triple civilian financial aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years, underscoring the country's vital role in the war in Afghanistan and the broader fight against international terrorism.
The legislation had been held up for months amid partisan wrangling, and the breakthrough came as the Friends of Democratic Pakistan assistance forum met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, co-chaired by President Barack Obama.
As the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan falters, cooperation from neighboring Pakistan is crucial because Pakistan is the headquarters, a refuge and a source of financing and other support for al Qaida, for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and for other Afghan insurgent groups.
Pakistan's inconsistent role in the war on terrorism, however, was highlighted again Thursday when it became clear that despite claims to the contrary, Pakistani officials haven't arrested Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned jihadist group that's blamed for last year's terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.
"He goes about anywhere he likes. There's no restraint against him," A.K. Dogar, Saeed's lawyer, told McClatchy. "This is all misinformation. He is a free man."
Reports earlier this week that Saeed had been arrested, citing police officials, seemed to be an effort to make Pakistan appear serious about combating Islamic extremism before the donors' meeting.
"It is the (extremist) mindset we're fighting. Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Taliban or al Qaida, wherever they are. We want to tell them . . . that we will not tolerate it," Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Thursday in New York. "We intend to bring democracy, to bring Pakistani people peace and be a responsible nation in the world."
Separately on Thursday, an anti-bribery watchdog, Transparency International, warned that Pakistan has dismantled its laws against official corruption, a development that's likely to concern Washington and other countries that are pledging billions in additional aid to Pakistan.
The aid bill, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., would provide $1.5 billion a year for five years, plus "such sums as are necessary" in military aid. It was the first time that the U.S. has made a multi-year commitment to Pakistan, said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The bill stipulates that nuclear-armed Pakistan must show that it's cooperating in efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons supply networks, that it's committed to fighting terrorist groups and that its security forces aren't subverting the country's political or judicial processes.
"It isn't in my view enough . . . but it is a very big commitment," Holbrooke told a news conference in New York after the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting. "If you study the history of Congress in recent years, you will not see other countries getting multi-year, bipartisan" support.
The U.S. pledged another $1 billion to Pakistan earlier this year through the Friends of Democratic Pakistan forum, part of $5.6 billion that 20 international allies vowed to give the country for longer-term development projects.
Washington also provided $330 million for an internal refugee crisis this year that followed a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern Swat valley. In addition, Pakistan demanded another $1.6 billion this week that it says it's owed under a military assistance program that dates to the presidency of George W. Bush.
Pakistan has been hit by a severe economic crisis, and it's remained afloat largely on emergency assistance from the International Monetary Fund as inefficiency, corruption and extremist violence have left it dependent on the U.S. and other donors.
On Thursday, extremists attacked Pakistani citizens who'd taken up arms against the Taliban. Eleven members of anti-Taliban militias died in two ambushes, nine of them near Bannu, a town on the edge of the tribal border zone with Afghanistan, and two in Swat, north of the capital, Islamabad.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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