Tuesday, October 13, 2009

US seeks to soothe Pakistani anger over aid

WASHINGTON — Senior lawmakers sought Tuesday to soothe anger in Pakistan over a proposed multibillion-dollar aid package, saying they would provide assurances that the United States has no intention of interfering with Pakistan's sovereignty.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who co-sponsored the aid package, said lawmakers would prepare an explanatory statement to accompany the bill, which has language that some in Pakistan see as outside interference with their government.

The statement would "set the record absolutely straight" and correct misinterpretations about the bill, Kerry told reporters after meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

"The bill doesn't have to be changed. If there is a misinterpretation, it just has to be clarified," Kerry said.

A statement would not alter the bill, which has already been approved by Congress and must still be signed into law by President Barack Obama. Any changes would have to be voted on by both the House and Senate.

Rep. Howard Berman of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said before his meeting Tuesday with Qureshi that the statement would explain what the bill does and what it does not do. The bill, he said, is meant to help Pakistan's people, not dictate what the country should do.

Qureshi was pressing lawmakers and the Obama administration for the assurances on the bill just a week after he was in Washington praising the aid package. During that first trip, Pakistan's military publicly criticized the bill, which triples nonmilitary assistance to the country.

The bill would provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year over the next five years to spend on democratic, economic and social development programs. But Pakistan's military has objected to language that links money for counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan cracking down on militancy and meeting other conditions.

The dispute shows the strains between the fragile civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and the military. It also highlights rising mistrust about U.S. intentions in Pakistan.

Qureshi said he wanted Congress to address worries about the bill compromising Pakistan's sovereignty.

"The fears that have been raised in Parliament need to be addressed," Qureshi said.

Pakistani analysts said the Pakistani military's complaints had little to do with genuine dislike of the bill, which includes money to rebuild crumbling schools, roads and hospitals. Instead, the military is sending a message to the Pakistani and U.S. governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that has been subject to military rule for about half of its 62-year history.

The legislation conditions U.S. aid on whether Pakistan's weak, U.S.-backed civilian government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions.

Kerry said no conditions are attached to the nonmilitary aid in the bill. The conditions on certain types of military aid, he said, do not require anything of Pakistan not already stated as goals by the government and opposition.

"There certainly is no intent to micromanage," Kerry said. "We're going to clarify this."

Qureshi also met with the Obama administration's top envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and with White House officials.

Qureshi's mission appears to be an about-face from last week, when, during his trip to Washington, he told reporters then that the aid package was crucial to Islamabad's efforts to fight terrorists. He also played down Pakistani military statements rejecting U.S. attempts to link the aid package to increased monitoring of anti-terror efforts.

The aid bill, U.S. officials say, is meant to alleviate widespread poverty. Pakistan's military, in an unusual public statement last week, expressed serious concern about the bill.

Pakistan's military has won American praise of late. Some U.S. officials, however, worry that Pakistan has not done enough with the billions in aid the United States has provided to fight terrorists.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is deemed crucial to U.S.-led efforts to battle extremists in South Asia, and the United States encourages Pakistan to crack down on extremists using the border region with Afghanistan as a haven. The United States has also staged attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan's frontier area, mostly by missiles fired from unmanned drones operating from Afghanistan.

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