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US: Panel okays disputed bill on aid to Pakistan

Last updated on: May 21, 2009 10:05 IST

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved a legislation that would triple economic assistance to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year, authored by its chairman Congressman Howard Berman, California Democrat, despite being vehemently opposed by the pro-Pakistan lobby and the Obama Administration.

And, even though the bill dropped all references to India, that was in the original bill, which made security assistance to Pakistan contingent on several benchmarks, including Islamabad halting all extremist and terrorist groups operating from Pakistani territory and providing undertaking that Pakistani soil will not be used to plan any attack against or inside India, like the one perpetrated on 26/11 in Mumbai, administration sources said the legislation was still not palatable and would be strongly opposed.

The administration has preferred the Senate bill introduced by Senators John F Kerry and Richard Lugar, the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which also calls for tripling of economic assistance to Pakistan, but sans the strict conditionality found in the Berman bill.

The removal of all India references and the watering down of the Berman bill, titled The Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement Act or PEACE Act,which the Indian-American community had strongly supported and New Delhi too had said it favored, Congressional sources acknowledged was a way of seeing that the legislation can be adopted when the full House votes on it on the floor and more importantly when it goes into conference with the Senate.

But administration sources said even with the removal of the India references, which the Pakistanis had complained it found humiliating and would not accept, the bill was still full of far too many conditions that no way would it be accepted, unless it was more in line with the Kerry-Lugar legislation which although calling for accountability and transparency, did not contain the kind of provisions that the Berman bill had.

Lynne Weil, communications director for Berman and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told that the provision that Pakistan commit itself to not allow cross border terrorism was still contained in the bill but without the reference to India.

She said, "That provision is still in the bill, but the word 'India' has been replaced with the words 'neighboring countries'" and argued that "so it has the same effect in law, without invoking the name directly."

Weil said, "The Change avoids a needless point of contention without changing the practical effect of the provision in question."

The legislation now required Pakistan as a condition for receiving US security assistance from eschewing "access to Pakistani nationals" connected to proliferation networks and also "ceasing support, including to any elements within the Pakistani military or its intelligence agency to extremist and terrorist groups," and preventing "cross border attacks into neighboring countries."

Berman in lauding the approval of his bill by a voice vote, said, "This legislation will massively expand economic, social and democracy assistance to Pakistan, and also provide a significant increase in military assistance."

"We need to forge a true strategic partnership with Pakistan, strengthen its democratic government, and do what we can to make Pakistan a force for stability in a volatile region," he said.

The bill, HR 1886, authorizes military assistance to help Pakistan "disrupt and defeat al Qaeda and insurgent elements," and requires that the vast majority of such assistance be focused on "critical counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts."

It also requires that all military assistance flow through the democratically elected civilian government of Pakistan and includes accountability measures for military assistance, including a requirement that "the Government of Pakistan has demonstrated a sustained commitment to combating terrorist groups and has made progress towards that end."

Last month, when Administration officials indicated that his bill would not be acceptable because of its strict conditions, Berman angrily argued that "I get the impression that those criticizing my bill haven't actually read it."

He said that "it doesn't include any 'rigid' or 'inflexible' conditions," and declared, "we are simply asking the President to hold the Pakistanis accountable for their commitments to fight the terrorists who threaten their and our national security."

Earlier this month, on May 5, when Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, came up on the Hill to testify before his Committee, Berman once again complained that "when I hear people talking about 'rigid' or 'inflexible' conditionality, I'm not sure what they're referring to."

Yesterday, Berman reiterated his statements, arguing that "contrary to what some have said, these are not 'rigid' or 'inflexible' conditions," but pointed out that "to ensure that the President has sufficient flexibility, we provide a waiver if he is unable to make the determinations."

"I think this is an excellent bill that will strengthen the critical US-Pakistan relationship and support US national security objectives in South Asia," he added.

Congressman Ed Royce, a ranking Republican on the Committee, who also chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, who strongly supported the Berman bill, said, "For far too long, Pakistan has taken US assistance with one hand, while undoing US efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan with the other."

"For too long, Pakistan has been receiving US aid to fight terrorism, while keeping its army aimed at India," he added.

Royce, the GOP co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans,  said, "This legislation lays down an important principle-- that Pakistani actions will have consequences."

"Congress is sending an important signal-- that we must see progress on A Q Khan, ISI, and the terrorists targeting US troops and neighboring India. I hope the Administration hears us," he said.

Congressman Jim McDermott, Democratic co-chair of the India Caucus, a co-sponsor of Berman's bill, said the legislation strikes a good balance between providing military aid to Pakistan while remaining sensitive to concerns by India about the kind of military hardware that would be available.

For instance, he explained, the bill "restricts Pakistan from buying additional F-16s beyond those already contracted for."

"I agree with India's concerns that new F-16s, could pose a threat and they aren't very useful for counter-insurgency," McDermott said.

But when Holbrooke appeared before the Committee, he argued that the F-16s would be used by Pakistan for counter-insurgency operations.

He said that Pakistan has informed him that it has already deployed its existing F-16s for sorties against various terrorist groups, particularly in the Bajaur Valley and in Swat.

"I am told by F-16 pilots that an F-16 with modern avionics can be used as a counterinsurgency tool, but quite honestly, it requires very sophisticated training," Holbrooke said.

He, however, said the administration has not come to a final decision on how to proceed with the proposed sale of the 18 new F-16s Pakistan has asked for. "Right now, we have approved the mid-life upgrades so they will be able to convert existing planes for counter-insurgency use," he said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC