ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s powerful army chief called Thursday for U.S. military aid to be converted to civilian assistance, an unusual move that reflected growing domestic criticism of the nation’s armed forces.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani said in a statement issued Thursday evening that money now being spent to support the military is more urgently needed for “reducing the burden on the common man.”
While the comment is unlikely to have any tangible impact in the short run, it could help shape an emerging debate in Washington over the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to support a military that many U.S. lawmakers view with deep suspicion.
In Pakistan, Kayani’s call was seen as an attempt to win back for the military some of the public affection that has been lost since Navy SEALs killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last month in the northern city of Abbottabad. In recent weeks, Kayani has been under intense pressure from the public — and from his own officer corps — to distance Pakistan from the United States.
Kayani has responded by ordering most of the estimated 135 U.S. military trainers who had been in Pakistan out of the country and by publicly resisting American calls for greater cooperation.
The United States has provided approximately $20 billion in assistance to Pakistan over the past decade. Most of the money has gone to the military, although the Obama administration has shifted the balance toward civilian aid in recent years.
Pakistani political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said Kayani’s statement could put pressure on the civilian government by reminding Pakistanis that it is not only the military that depends on support from Washington.
“The military is saying that if the civilians want to revise Pakistan’s foreign policy, they should go ahead and do it,” Rizvi said.
Pakistan’s armed forces have traditionally dictated the nation’s security and foreign policies, with weak civilian authorities playing only a marginal role. But with criticism of the military rising, politicians have become bolder in challenging that dynamic. This week, one lawmaker called for the nation’s intelligence budget — long a closely held secret — to be made public.
In Thursday’s statement, Kiyani and his top commanders accused civilian critics of trying “to drive a wedge between the army, different organs of the state and, more seriously, the people of Pakistan, whose support the army has always considered vital for its operations against terrorists.”
Those operations continued to take a toll Thursday. Taliban fighters stormed a checkpoint in the northwest, killing eight soldiers in an area that had been declared free of militants. Elsewhere, bomb attacks left six civilians dead.