Pakistan aid bill has explosive impact
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - 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
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
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
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 http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.