'Bill comes with tough conditions'

A week after the US Congress approved a landmark aid package to Pakistan, opposition politicians in Islamabad called the US package a dangerous subversion of Pakistan's sovereignty.

Forces secure the site of a bomb blast at a UN compound in Islamabad on Monday. As the Pakistan military prepared to launch a major offensive in South Waziristan, senior commanders rejected conditions to a new US aid package.
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A week after the US Congress approved a landmark aid package to Pakistan, opposition politicians in Islamabad attacked the government of the president, Asif Ali Zardari, calling the American package a dangerous subversion of Pakistan's sovereignty. The aid agreement, which will triple non-military assistance to Pakistan to US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) per year for the next five years, has already been welcomed by Mr Zardari, and his allies have hailed its passage as a fundamental shift in US-Pakistan relations.

The bill's opponents, however, point to the tough conditions it places on Pakistan's politically powerful military. "The tone and tenor of the bill in terms of conditionalities is not just intrusive, it's also overbearing and bordering on the humiliation of Pakistan," said Mushahid Hussain, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q opposition party. Pakistan's parliament debated the bill again yesterday and prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Wednesday vowed to build national consensus on the bill, adding that "our army is pro-democracy and highly professional".

In a rare public statement, the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 62-year existence, rejected the linking of aid to increased oversight, raising fears of military intervention in Pakistan's tenuous democratic process. The bill places a number of contentious conditions on the defence aid, including guarantees that the military not interfere in politics or the judiciary.

The fierce debate occurs at an especially sensitive time, with the army on the cusp of an unprecedented offensive against militants in South Waziristan and Washington pressing Islamabad to step up efforts against Afghan Taliban on its side of the border. It also underscores the fragility of the US-Pakistan alliance and the degree to which many in Pakistan, which relies heavily on American aid, still resent the impositions of the US war on terror.

President Zardari's acceptance of the bill's conditions appears to represent his efforts to bring the military under increased civilian control. However, his attempts to implement similar moves in the past, such as making the ISI - Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency - accountable to the government, have been embarrassingly unsuccessful. Mr Zardari and other supporters also say it changes the nature of the US-Pakistan relationship from a tactical one based on short-term security interests to a long-term strategic relationship, which the US hopes will counter anti-Americanism among Pakistanis. The funds are intended to help strengthen the democratic institutions of the state as well as to develop critical infrastructure.

The legislation also allocates "such sums as necessary" beyond the $1.5bn to the Pakistani army. But in a nation where sensitivity to American intrusion runs high, the restrictions placed on the disbursement of security aid, as well as US plans for a larger embassy and increased personnel on the ground, have been targeted by opposition politicians and the media as further examples of encroachment.

Pakistani political analysts, however, say the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 - better known as the Kerry-Lugar bill - neither heralds a new era in US-Pakistan relations nor expands US influence within the country. "The bill itself is neither as disastrous or as great as people are suggesting. It's somewhere in between," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. "The debate misses the point. If they want to impose sanctions or squeeze you they'll do it. I don't think any bill or set of rules or conditionalities determines the direction of relations between the two states; it's just an instrument," Almeida said from Karachi.

In other words, the primary concerns for the US in Pakistan will remain the same: its own security interests and those of its bona fide long-term ally in the region, India. "The relationship is about them wanting something from us. It's hard to identify areas in which either of the countries are excited about working together in the long term," said Almeida. Ahsan Butt, a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine's AfPak Channel website, said the bill did represent a sharp contrast to previous US engagement with Pakistan, which tended to cement the power of military dictatorships. "I would say that the bill makes small but substantive shifts toward a more deeply embedded relationship. For one thing, while focused mainly on security considerations and the war against militant organisations, it does signal - albeit weakly - that the US is interested in Pakistan's civil society, its institutions of governance, and its socio-economic development. Do these concerns manifest themselves as the ones the US is most interested in? No. But they are there," Mr Butt said in comments sent by e-mail.

Arif Rafiq, a security analyst and blogger based in Washington, said: "The original objective of the bill was to help Washington develop a relationship with the people of Pakistan and on terms that benefit both ... but certain conditions in the bill indicate the primacy of Washington's emerging relationship with New Delhi and the influence of Indian Americans." Ultimately, the various political actors in Pakistan, including the opposition, realise that Pakistan's economy is reliant on foreign aid and they are therefore unlikely to reject the bill, though expectations should be tempered.

"Obviously what matters is if the American government is investing in Pakistan - that helps our credit standing in the international markets, it suggests political stability," said Almeida. "But directly will it make a major dent? No." tkhan@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse