- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

UPDATED:

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s powerful military, preparing for a new offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, expressed “serious concern” Wednesday about a proposed multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package some consider an avenue to American meddling.

The military’s unusual public statement opens a rift with the weak U.S.-backed civilian administration in Islamabad and bolsters opposition leaders. It also appears intended to show the Pakistani people that their army is not taking orders from Washington.

The aid bill, which awaits President Barack Obama’s signature, would provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year over the next five years to spend on democratic, economic and social development programs. It also allows “such sums as may be necessary” for military aid, subject to special conditions related to its fight against militants.

U.S. officials say the bill’s broad goal is to alleviate widespread poverty among the 175 million Pakistanis, lessening the allure of Taliban and other Islamist extremists who have wreaked havoc in the country and across the border in Afghanistan.

But to many here, the conditions attached to the aid are a sign of growing, and unwanted, U.S. influence in Pakistan. The worries are burnished by a media-fueled backlash over U.S. plans to add hundreds more embassy staff in Islamabad. American officials say the staff are needed to disburse and monitor the aid.

“The question in Pakistani minds is: ‘Is so much intrusion worth what we will be getting?’” said Ayaz Amir, a journalist and member of parliament with the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the largest opposition party. “Once we accept the terms of this bill and we start receiving aid under it, already great American influence will grow.”

A Parliament discussion of the issue began on a fiery note Wednesday night, with PML-N lawmaker Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan claiming “each and every page of the bill is reflective of the insulting attitude towards Pakistan.”

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was more conciliatory, telling Parliament the government would look into the concerns, and had not yet agreed to accept the money.

“We have not done anything so far without consensus and we will develop consensus on this too,” he said.

The military’s statement was vague. It said senior commanders, including the army chief, “expressed serious concern regarding clauses (of the bill) impacting on national security.” But it also referred to Parliament’s deliberation on the subject, which it said would allow “the government to develop a national response.”

One part of the bill says the U.S. must assess the extent of control Pakistan’s government has over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions. In a country that has spent about half its 62-year existence under military rule, such language may not go down well with the army.

Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper, said it was unusual to see the military view publicized so blatantly, and that could lead to greater tension with the Pakistani president, causing political instability at a time the U.S. needs Islamabad to stay focused on battling militants.

The debate comes as the army stepped up preparations for a new offensive in South Waziristan — seen as al-Qaida and the Taliban’s major stronghold on the Afghan border — in what could be one of the most important operations against militants here since 2001.

“God willing, peace will again be restored in the area through a successful operation,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman, told the ARY news channel.

He did not give a start date for an offensive, which would face steep challenges, ranging from harsh terrain to well dug-in militants. Analysts say 10,000 well-armed militants, including foreign fighters, are in the region.

Pakistan’s government and the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday defended the aid bill, while Pakistan Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government will look into the army’s reservations.

Opposition leaders object to a number of items in the bill, including references to the southwest city of Quetta and eastern town of Muridke as militant hubs — a claim they say there is no evidence to back up.

The U.S. believes the Afghan Taliban’s top leadership is in Quetta, while Muridke is a base for militants linked to attacks on India.

The Quetta reference in particular could be seen as potentially giving latitude for the U.S. to launch missile strikes into Pakistan’s southwest, something that would infuriate Pakistanis already unhappy with such attacks in the northwest region.

Language in the bill that says the U.S. will expect Pakistan to cooperate in efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons supplier networks alarms some because it suggests Pakistan provide “direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks.”

Aside from specifics, critics say the bill paints Pakistan as a misbehaved child needing a monitor, and does not give it enough praise for the sacrifices and progress it has made against militants on its soil.

“The tone and tenor of the bill in terms of conditionalities is not just intrusive, it’s also overbearing and bordering on the humiliation of Pakistan,” said Mushahid Hussain, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q. “We are not being treated kindly.”

Gerald Feierstein, the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Islamabad, dismissed the notion that the U.S. was trying to interfere in Pakistani affairs.

“Our viewpoint is that this should not be a discussion about the conditions, it should be a discussion about what this legislation can accomplish for Pakistan,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “It has the U.S. and Pakistan working together on trying to address the relevant challenges confronting Pakistan — health, education, transportation, energy.”

Farahnaz Ispahani, a top aide to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, insisted the standards presented by the bill were reasonable and that the language had actually been softened through the various versions.

“If the government feels at any point that this is intrusive to the sovereignty of Pakistan, it can say ‘No, thank you,’ and walk away from the aid,” she said, declining to comment on the reported displeasure within the army.

Almeida said that no matter what, in the end, Pakistan was unlikely to reject billions of dollars in U.S. assistance. The economic needs of the country are simply too great.

“There’ll be a lot of noise, but at the end of the day the bill is about giving Pakistan money, and we need money and we’re probably going to take the money, but we’re going to do in a way which suggests that we’re taking it under protest,” Almeida said.

Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.


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