By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Congress yesterday slapped restrictions on military aid to Pakistan and withheld $50 million of the administration's $300 million request until Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can certify that Islamabad is restoring democratic rights, including an independent judiciary.
The congressional move went further than the administration's own review of aid to Pakistan after the Nov. 3 declaration of emergency powers by President Pervez Musharraf. In a decision that received little notice, the administration decided earlier this month to stop making an annual $200 million cash payment to the Pakistani government, instead converting those funds to programs for Pakistan that will be administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The congressional aid restrictions were buried in the omnibus spending bill approved yesterday by the House and the Senate and sent to President Bush. Though Musharraf has lifted emergency rule and resigned as army chief, lawmakers intended to signal that they want to link aid to Islamabad to demonstrated progress on human rights. Pakistan has received about $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, though the administration maintains that about half of that is to reimburse Pakistan for expenses incurred in the fight against terrorist groups.
Bush committed in 2004 to a $6 billion, five-year program to provide military and economic aid to Pakistan, and this is the first time Congress has sought to place restrictions on that commitment.
Akram Shaheedi, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, criticized the decision, saying that "the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan were not happy with such conditionality." He said that the country is "continuing to follow the democratic path" and that "such measures will not weaken Pakistan's resolve to fight out forces of extremism and terrorism."
In a unrelated move, lawmakers also cut the administration's funding request for democracy programs in Iran from $75 million to $60 million, diverting $15 million toward grants for software programmers who specialize in creating programs that thwart Internet firewalls erected by repressive countries such as Iran and China. The idea, which was championed by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), is intended to assist dissidents without making them the target of arrests and harassment.
"There is a lot of uneasiness about the whole Iran democracy program," said one congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It is potentially a way of providing an excuse for cracking down on dissidents."
The legislation also withheld $100 million in aid to Egypt until Rice certifies that sufficient actions have been taken by Egypt to stop smuggling between the Sinai and Gaza, which Israel says has strengthened the Hamas militant group that controls the narrow coastal strip. The legislation, however, allows Bush to waive the restriction on national security grounds.
Regarding Pakistan, lawmakers not only withheld a portion of the money sought by the administration but also strictly limited the use of the remaining $250 million to "counter-terrorism and law enforcement activities directed against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and associated terrorist groups." The language is intended to make if difficult for Pakistan to use the money to acquire F-16 jets or Sidewinder missiles, which are aimed at neighboring India, not terrorists.
"This is going to be a problem," said a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "The Pakistanis really want the F-16s. It is very symbolic in their eyes."
The congressional aide acknowledged that "we are undoubtedly going to have an argument with the administration," saying "my guess is that they will interpret that rather broadly" and argue that F-16s are needed for the fight against terrorist groups. But he noted that ban also extended to the acquisition of naval equipment, "and the last time we checked, the Taliban did not have a navy."
To release the $50 million, the legislation says, Rice must certify that Pakistan is "making concerted efforts" against terrorist havens and is implementing a long list of democratic reforms, including ensuring freedom of assembly and expression, releasing political detainees, ending harassment and detention of journalists, human rights defenders and government critics, and restoring an independent judiciary.
Congress also appropriated up to $350 million in economic aid to Pakistan and up to $5 million for administrative expenses needed by USAID to manage the $200 million in funds that had previously been given as a check to the Pakistani Ministry of Finance. The agency had estimated it needed about 31 people to make grants and monitor projects run by nongovernmental groups. "None of the funds appropriated by this Act may be made available for cash transfer assistance for Pakistan," the bill says.
The shift is the one tangible result of a lengthy administration review of aid to Pakistan, which was announced without fanfare during a congressional hearing this month.
Ending the direct payment to Pakistan and directing the $200 million to specific projects will "directly benefit the Pakistani people and will make Pakistan a stronger and more secure ally in the war against terrorism," Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher told the Senate on Dec. 6. But he argued that Congress should not cut overall funding levels for Pakistan.