- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government questioned Thursday why the powerful military publicly criticized a multibillion-dollar American aid bill, highlighting tensions in the country as the army prepares for an expected offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda along the border with Afghanistan.

As Pakistani lawmakers debated whether to back the proposed aid, there were few signs of compromise in a dispute that has shown the strains between the fragile civilian government and the military, which ruled Pakistan for about half of its 62-year history.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has hailed the U.S. legislation, which would provide $1.5 billion a year over the next five years, tripling nonmilitary assistance to the country. It also authorizes “such sums as may be necessary” for counterterrorism assistance - but only if Pakistan cracks down on militancy and meets other conditions.

In an unusual public statement, the army brass raised “serious concern” Wednesday over the strings attached to the bill, bolstering opposition politicians who have said the conditions would lead to U.S. meddling in Pakistan’s affairs.

Farhatullah Babar, Mr. Zardari’s chief spokesman, said previous U.S. aid packages negotiated under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who led a military government for eight years beginning in 1999, contained similar clauses and the army never complained.

“Why this protest now?” he asked. “There are proper forums like the defense committee of the Cabinet and the Ministry of Defense for communication of such views…. Why this was bypassed, I don’t know.”

He strongly defended the aid package, saying “there is nothing against the national interest in the bill.”

The legislation, which has been approved by the U.S. Congress and awaits President Obama’s signature, conditions U.S. aid on whether Pakistan’s government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions. It also calls for periodic certifications by the president and secretary of state that Pakistan is making a commitment to combating terrorist groups, cooperating in controlling proliferation of nuclear weapons and meeting other conditions.

In a sign the aid also was causing rifts within Mr. Zardari’s civilian government, coalition partners expressed reservations over the bill and said their support for it could not be guaranteed.

“Two groups of our lawmakers and legal experts are deliberating on this issue,” said Haider Rizvi, a lawmaker from the Muttahida Quami Movement.

U.S. diplomats reached out to Pakistani officials Thursday to ease concerns about the bill, said spokesman Richard Snelsire. He declined to give more specifics.

As the debate raged on, helicopter gunships and artillery batteries shelled militant positions in several areas of South Waziristan in what could be a prelude to a planned offensive against militants there, intelligence officials and witnesses said. Residents said several compounds were hit and people were fleeing for safety.

The U.S. sees a Pakistani offensive against the militants in the lawless tribal regions as crucial to its own war against the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan.

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