The Carter administration, although reportedly upset by Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ulHaq's description of a $400 million U.S. aid offer as "peanuts," yesterday sought to smooth the matter over by saying it will submit the military and economic assistance package to Congress next week.
A U.S. official said privately that when administration leaders heard about Zia's remark, made at a news conference Thursday in Rawalpindi, they briefly considered dropping the U.S. offer to help strengthen Pakistan in the face of the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.
But, the official added, "we decided not to engage in petty jockeying." Instead, he said, the aid request will be forwarded to Congress as planned, probably when it reconvenes Monday.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter publicly brushed aside Zia's remark as "a quibble" and said: "The characterization is incorrect on its own terms. Over the years, the United States has provided Pakistan with generous levels of assistance -- economic and military."
The spokesman also said that the United States has rejected Zia's call at his news conference for converting Pakistan's 1959 defense agreement with the United States that a permanent treaty guaranteeing Pakistan's freedom and integrity.
Hodding Carter said Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance informed Zia's foreign affairs adviser, Agha Shahi, when the two conferred here last Saturday that a formal treaty was not possible.
According to the spokesman, Vance assured Shahi that the United States was willing to reaffirm "in the strongest terms" the 1959 agreement. Although the agreement calls for the United States to assist Pakistan if it is attacked by outside forces, it contains a number of loopholes that leave unclear the nature and degree of the U.S. obligation.
"Merely transforming that agreement into a treaty would in no material way change the obligations," Hodding Carter said. "The United States prefers to concentrate on practical ways to aid Pakistan."
Other U.S. officials said privately that working out a treaty would involve prolonged negotiations and congressional actions that would delay efforts to build up the Pakistani armed forces.
In respect to the U.S. offer of $400 million over a two-year period, the spokesman said the package was "substantive and responsive to Pakistan's needs.' He added that it "must be viewed in the context of the reality that the United States alone cannot meet all of Pakistan's requirements" and that it must get additional help elsewhere.
Noting that the United States is talking with other nations about additional aid for Pakistan. Hodding Carter said, "Ours is a considered proposal in the context of larger activity by a consortium of countries." Although the other potential aid donors have not been identified formally, the administration is known to hope they will include some of its European allies and possibly China and prowestern Arab states.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said congressional leaders have agreed on an accelerated timetable that could allow the first $200 million of the package to be approved as early as next month.
Complicating congressional approval of the request is the need to obtain waivers of laws that last April forced President Carter to cut off aid to Pakistan because of its refusal to allow international inspection of its nuclear research programs. The laws were passed in support of U.S. efforts to persuade other countries not to produce nuclear weapons.
However, the nuclear dispute has been dropped for the time being as a result of the administration's concern that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan will spill across the Pakistani border. Zablocki and other congressional leaders have said they will go along with administration requests to resume aid as soon as possible.