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Kerry reassures Pakistan over aid bill concerns

October 14, 2009 09:56 IST

The Pakistani Army seems to have certainly made clear who's calling the shots in Pakistan, sending the civilian administration scurrying back to Washington to prevail on the Obama Administration and the US Congress to remove the alleged strings attached to the massive $ 7.5 billion aid package to that country.

But even as Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who only returned to Islamabad last week from Washington, was sent back to Washington to convey the concerns of the military and the Pakistani Parliament over the provisions of the aid bill impinging on Pakistan's sovereignty, an Obama administration, dependent on the Pakistani Army more than ever to root out the Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region, was on the defensive, and so was Senator John F Kerry, the co-author of the Kerry-Lugar bill, even more so, imploring the Pakistani people to believe him in that there was nothing in the bill that compromised that that country's sovereignty.

Kerry, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who last week stood side-by-side with Qureshi and declared there are no conditions attached to the aid and that the bill in no way impinges on Pakistan's sovereignty, reiterated these assertions and also out a lengthy fact sheet which he said, separates "myth from fact on the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009."

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that President Obama "believes this is an important piece of legislation and will sign it soon," and said that the opponents of this bill were "either misinformed or are characterizing this in a different way for their own political purposes."

The bill has been sitting on Obama's desk for signature since last week, and some diplomatic observers contend that Obama is holding off from signing it till the raging controversy can be sorted out, which has also got the Pentagon involved with the likes of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and the US Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McCrystal all making it clear to the White House that the last thing they want on their hands is an uncooperative Pakistani army and an angry General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff who had expressed his strong reservations to them about the provisions in the bill, particularly some of its security related clauses.

Kerry, who Congressional sources acknowledged, was so concerned over the strong Pakistani reaction to the bill that he had worked long and hard with the ranking Republican and his co-author Senator Richard Lugar to fashion, consulting all along with the Obama Administration officials and even with input from members of the civilian government of Pakistani President Asif Zardari (which has led to several reports in the Pakistani media that the Pakistani Ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani is about to be fired for urging allegedly some clauses perceived as anti-Army) was even considering a quick trip to Islamabad to meet with Kayani and other military leaders and leading parliamentarians to assuage their concerns and assure them there is nothing in the legislation that infringes on Pakistani sovereignty.

In his statement Kerry said, "The United States wants to transform its relationship with Pakistan into a deeper, broader, long-term strategic engagement with the people of Pakistan," and argued that the Kerry-Lugar bill, "was designed to help turn the page in our bilateral relationship by moving beyond a military relationship to one where the United States engages directly with the people of Pakistan as a true ally and friend." Kerry said that "the heart of this bill gives the people of Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years in nonmilitary aid," and that it should "be seen for what it is—a true sign of US friendship to the people of Pakistan."

"The language in the bill was carefully negotiated," he added, between him and Lugar and Congressman Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee "with the concurrence of the US State and Defense Departments," and approved "unanimously on a bipartisan basis by the US Congress in September 2009." Kerry said that it was a myth that the $7.5 billion authorized by the bill "comes with strings attached for the people of Pakistan," and said the fact of the matter is that "there are no conditions on Pakistan attached to these funds."

"There are strict measures of financial accountability on these funds that Congress is imposing on the US executive branch –not the Pakistani government, to make sure the money is being spent properly and for the purposes intended," he added. "Such accountability measures have been welcomed by Pakistani commentators to ensure that funds meant for schools, roads and clinics actually reach the Pakistani people and are not wasted." 

But obviously cognizant of not wanting to antagonize the Pakistani Army, Kerry said, it was a myth that "the bill places onerous conditions on US military aid to Pakistan that interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs and imply that Pakistan supports terrorism and nuclear proliferation." Kerry said that the bill "does not discuss the levels of US military aid to Pakistan, which will be determined year by year depending on events on the ground."

"This disinformation stems from an item to be included in one of the monitoring reports," he explained, which "requires the Secretary of State to describe the extent to which civilian authorities exercise control over the Pakistani military."

Kerry said that "it does not require such control, nor does it place any restriction whatsoever on Pakistan. This benchmark, like all benchmarks in the monitoring reports, is informational. It presents a data-point on which US policymakers can base decisions." He also denied that that the bill expands the Predator program of drone attacks on targets within Pakistan and said, "there is nothing in the bill related to drones."

Kerry also denied that the bill funds activities within Pakistan by private US security firms, such as Dyncorp and Blackwater. "The bill does not include any language on private US security firms." The lawmaker said that "the issue of how private security firms operate in Pakistan have nothing to do with this bill," and noted that "the laws governing such firms –which are employed by many US embassies and consulates throughout the world –are not affected by this bill in any way."

Kerry also vehemently denied as a complete myth that the bill aims for an expanded US military footprint in Pakistan. "The bill does not provide a single dollar for US military operations," he said.

Also addressing fears that the envisaged massive expansion of the US embassy in Islamabad to over 1,000 personnel and increased space and security was to have a physical footprint in Pakistan, Kerry said, "As part of this bill, we are asking the US embassy in Islamabad to take an enormous amount of responsibility and oversight." Consequently, he argued that "the embassy may need to add on additional staff to help implement billions of dollars in aid, and this is a logical step and should not be read as anything more than that." "Such staffing decisions will follow the normal course of conduct, as governed by agreements between the governments of the Pakistan and the United States," Kerry added.

At the State Department, P J Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, rationalizing the return of Qureshi to Washington, said, "There have been questions raised within Pakistan by the Pakistani parliament, by the Pakistani people. We welcome this debate. We welcome the opportunity to clarify what this bill does, what it doesn't do, and that's part of what the foreign minister is here to try to accomplish."

Gibbs reiterating that Obama intends to sign the bill, at the same time pointed out--effectively tossing the ball into the Congress' court, perhaps in terms of watering down the alleged inimical provision in the bill where Pakistan is concerned--that "this is a piece of authorizing legislation."

"This allows Congress to appropriate $7.5 billion over a five-year period. It's still upto Congress and the President mentioned this in his meeting with Congress last week, that it's important that we give lift to the promise of helping the Pakistanis," he said. 

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC