By Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 8, 2009
The Obama administration's strategy for bolstering Pakistan's civilian government was shaken Wednesday when political opposition and military leaders there sharply criticized a new U.S. assistance plan as interfering with the country's sovereignty.
Although President Obama has praised the $7.5 billion, five-year aid program -- approved by Congress last week -- Pakistani officials have objected to provisions that require U.S. monitoring of everything from how they spend the money to the way the military promotes senior officers.
Their criticism threatens to complicate the administration's efforts in the region, where Pakistan's assistance is seen as crucial to the war in Afghanistan.
"Obviously, it demonstrates we've still got work to do," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said of the Pakistani criticism.
On Wednesday, Obama convened his top national security officials to discuss policy in Pakistan and its role in the developing strategy in Afghanistan. A senior administration official described the three-hour White House meeting, which coincided with the eighth anniversary of the Afghanistan war, as "a comprehensive update on the situation" in Pakistan, including an "intelligence and counterterrorism assessment, as well as an assessment of the political and diplomatic situation."
With Taliban attacks on U.S. and NATO forces planned and launched from within its borders, an al-Qaeda sanctuary in its tribal areas and a nuclear arsenal whose security is of international concern, Pakistan is the most strategically important country in the region.
When Obama concluded his first strategy review in March, he praised Pakistan's newly elected civilian government and proposed a sharp increase in military and civilian aid. Since then, the administration has tried to overcome decades of mistrust between the two countries, to calm Pakistan's fractious politics and prop up its faltering civilian institutions. U.S. military officials have carefully cultivated their counterparts in the country's politically powerful military, encouraging them to fight militants with whom they have long been allied and to submit to democratic rule.
The White House has been encouraged by the Pakistani government's decision to challenge the Taliban within its borders. The Pakistani army fought the Taliban this spring as the group pushed toward the capital, Islamabad. It then pursued the fighters into the Swat Valley. The army also has been preparing for a push into al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries along the border in South Waziristan. With the government's tacit approval, U.S. missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft against high-value insurgent targets in the border area have brought what a senior administration official called "a real degradation of al-Qaeda."
As White House strategy sessions on Afghanistan began last week, administration officials contrasted what they described as a worsening situation there with a better-than-expected one in Pakistan, which has been rattled by one political crisis after another in recent years.
"Many in Washington were not prepared for this," one senior official said of Wednesday's outbursts in Islamabad.
A senior U.S. military official said that the relationship with Pakistan is "still positive" but that "we need to understand the sensitivities better." The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Pakistani media reported mounting anger over the aid bill within the military on Tuesday, when Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief, met in Islamabad with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The terms set in the bill were described as "insulting and unacceptable" by one publication. On Wednesday, the dispute was the subject of a special debate in the Pakistani Parliament.
"Not a single Pakistani can accept the [aid legislation] in its current form," said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistan Muslim League, a leading opposition party.
In a statement issued after a meeting with top military commanders, Kiyani expressed "serious concerns" over the legislation and said that Pakistan had the right to analyze and respond to all threats "in accordance with her own national interests."
For its part, the cash-strapped Pakistani government of President Asif Ali Zardari appears caught between its desire for closer relations with the United States -- and the resources that relationship promises -- and the political liability it entails.
Pressed during the debate, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the aid provisions should be discussed "as long as desired" by Parliament. Saying he was closely consulting with the military, Gillani declared that the aid package "is neither a contract signed with the U.S. administration, nor is it binding on Pakistan. It is the legislation of the U.S. Congress, and it is we who have to decide whether to accept it or not."
U.S. and Pakistani officials said that the government was on board with the aid package and that accommodation could be reached with the political opposition. They suggested that the criticism was part of what one senior Pakistani official close to Zardari called an "orchestrated campaign" by elements within Pakistan's military and its intelligence service opposed to civilian control of foreign and defense policies. The army had been "completely briefed" in advance about all elements in the aid package, the official said, describing the military's alarm this week as disingenuous.
Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said that the language in the legislation could have been "more diplomatic and softer" but that the bill had become a vehicle for unrelated disputes. "If the Pakistani government, the opposition and the military cannot come to a consensus," Rizvi said, "then it is going to create problems for the ties between the U.S. and Pakistan."
The bill, named after its chief sponsors, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, triples the amount of U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan, which has long been overshadowed by military aid.
Obama was an original sponsor of the measure, first introduced when he served in the Senate, and the bill is the centerpiece of his administration's development efforts in Pakistan. Its passage this year was stalled when House members, recalling a lack of supervision over billions of dollars given to Pakistan during the Bush administration, insisted on stricter monitoring provisions. The version that ultimately emerged from a conference committee and was approved last week mandates regular administration certification that Pakistan is adhering to a wide range of requirements.
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and staff writer Ben Pershing in Washington contributed to this report.