U.S. Seeks to Ease Pakistanis' Concerns Before Obama Signs Aid Bill
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
President Obama plans to sign a bill providing Pakistan $7.5 billion in economic aid Wednesday after Congress issues a statement designed to placate Pakistanis' objections that conditions attached to the legislation violate their sovereignty, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
The joint House-Senate statement will emphasize mutual respect between the two countries, officials said, and "clarify" provisions in the bill requiring administration reports to Congress on Pakistan's expenditures, its progress in combating Islamist insurgents and the extent of civilian control over the Pakistani military.
"Pakistan will not compromise on its sovereignty. I have put on the table our concerns," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said after a meeting Tuesday with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who sponsored the bill with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.).
Qureshi, who hailed the aid package as a "strong signal" of U.S. support on a visit to Washington just last week, was sent back from Islamabad on an emergency mission after Pakistan's military and opposition leaders criticized the bill as insulting and patronizing. Pakistani officials have suggested that military and opposition objections reflect Pakistani political maneuvering to undermine the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.
The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is a critical component of Obama's evolving strategy on the Afghanistan war. The president will hold his fifth closed-door meeting about Afghanistan and Pakistan with top national security aides Wednesday. Despite growing pressure from Republican lawmakers to quickly approve a recommendation from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan, to deploy tens of thousands more troops, an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said deliberations would continue into next week and possibly beyond.
"We are going through a very deliberative process," Obama said Tuesday, adding that he expected it to be completed "in the coming weeks." The White House last week deferred a scheduled personal appearance by McChrystal, saying that he would have an opportunity to "present his case" to Obama and his senior aides before a final decision was made.
Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who protested that war, said Tuesday that he was "very wary" of sending more troops to Afghanistan unless the administration can determine "what is achievable, measured against the legitimate interests of the United States, primary among which is al-Qaeda."
Departing Wednesday on a five-day trip to the region, Kerry told the Reuters news agency that after meeting with McChrystal, he "may decide that there is a doable strategy that achieves the goals I set out, that requires some additional troops." But he said that he was wary because of "past experience and . . . some of the challenges that I see."
Obama has said the U.S. goal in the region is to dismantle and defeat Pakistan-based al-Qaeda, leading a number of Democrats to question even the existing American military presence in Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops are engaged in what McChrystal has called a "deteriorating" fight against the Taliban.
The president has ruled out a significant decrease in troops. Options under White House consideration range from adopting McChrystal's recommendation all or in part to a status quo troop presence with increased focus on reconciliation with some Taliban elements and escalation of missile attacks on al-Qaeda and other insurgent strongholds across the border in Pakistan.
The upheaval in Pakistan over the aid package has been an unanticipated complication in the White House deliberations. The bill, designed to bolster the position of the civilian government and quell rising anti-Americanism, was first introduced in 2008 by then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Lugar, and co-sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama. Like the current bill, it provided Pakistan with $1.5 billion in annual economic aid for five years. But it languished amid criticism that the Pakistan government, headed by the military until last year, had misused and failed to account for much of the $10 billion it received during the Bush administration.
Kerry and Lugar revived the package this year after Obama pledged to sharply increase assistance to Zardari's government, elected last year. But some lawmakers, particularly in the House, insisted that the aid be conditioned on regular administration assurances that the money was being well spent and the Pakistani military remained under civilian control.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), who sponsored a version of the bill in that chamber, said in an interview Tuesday that although "billions have gone down a rat hole in the past" in Pakistan, he did not want to "micromanage" the country's use of the new money. In what he called a "massive demonstration of self-restraint," Congress had imposed "no earmarks" on the bill but "only accountability to make sure it's getting to the Pakistani people."
The legislation requires Obama to inform Congress in detail of his Pakistan strategy and instructs Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to send reports on its implementation every six months. Some in Pakistan have taken exception to such provisions, but Berman said the bill had been "mischaracterized" there.
The "joint explanatory statement" to be issued by Congress on Wednesday, he said, will "make clear we think it is a very important relationship" and that there is "no intention of infringing the sovereignty of Pakistan."