With U.S. legislation that would triple aid dollars to Pakistan awaiting a presidential signature, the Pakistani military's top brass has publically aired "serious concerns" over parts of the bill, arguing that it would harm national security.
The harsh reaction to the bill, which would place conditions on funding to the Pakistani military, comes as the United States is engaged in an intensive review of its Afghan war strategy that could result in a greater focus on targeting extremists' sanctuaries in Pakistan.
U.S. Congress last week approved the "Kerry-Lugar bill," co-authored by Senators John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana). The bill, if signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama, would increase aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year.
Having evolved in Congress over the course of nearly two years, the legislation reflects a fresh U.S. approach to ties with Pakistan. Washington's longstanding sponsorship of Pakistan's powerful army would be diminished, with the financial-aid focus turning to the country's social and economic development.Pakistani Opposition
But Pakistani military and opposition parties see the bill as part of a plan by Washington to radically restructure Pakistan.
Politicians -- including coalition partners of the government -- analysts, and opinion-makers take umbrage with clauses of the bill that link military aid with the Pakistani security force's performance against "terrorists" and Islamabad's cooperation in preventing the proliferation of the country's nuclear technology.
Following a meeting of top Pakistani generals on October 7, a statement from the military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) directorate called for building a national response to the bill.
Pakistan is engaged in a polarizing debate which political pundits suggest could undermine the coalition government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party
"A formal input is being provided to the government. However, in the considered view of the forum, it is the parliament that represents the will of the people of Pakistan, which would deliberate on the issue, enabling the government to develop a national response," the statement said.
A few hours later Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, whose government welcomed the bill, tried to address the concerns during a parliamentary debate on the bill.
"If there are concerns -- in the parliament and those of the army [we will address them]. We have not done anything without building consensus and, inshallah, we will build up consensus on this as well," he told legislators.
"This [Kerry-Lugar bill] is not a contract and it is not binding on us. It is a bill passed by their own legislation and it's not binding on us to agree to all its terms and conditions. It is up to the parliament to take a decision."
Analysts suggest the military is also apparently unhappy over a provision in the Kerry-Lugar bill that calls for an assessment of how effective the civilian government's control is over the powerful military.
Critics in Pakistan argue that the language of the bill is humiliating.
"The incompetence of the [President Asif Ali] Zardari regime has brought humiliation to Pakistan," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Group), the main opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.Explaining Bill To Parliament
To contain the brewing political crisis over the aid bill, Prime Minister Gilani summoned Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi from a Washington visit to explain the aid legislation to the Pakistani parliament.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly downplayed the concerns over the conditions attached to the new U.S. aid package.
"[What] we really are trying to develop here is a partnership. And it's very important that we -- as we go forward with this partnership, that we do it in all transparency," Kelly told reporters on October 7.
"In terms of some of the requirements that we have for our assistance, of course, since we're -- we are stewards of U.S. taxpayer funds, we have to build in certain consultation mechanisms, monitoring mechanisms. These are in no way intended to impinge on Pakistan's sovereignty."
Pakistan is nevertheless engaged in a polarizing debate which political pundits suggest could undermine the coalition government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party. Observers note that the opposition may seek to cash in on the military's displeasure with the bill because civilian governments often fall when they lose the army's backing.
In an editorial today, Pakistan's most widely read English-language daily, "Dawn," warned against using the debate on the bill to undermine Pakistan's fragile democracy.
"Right or wrong, wise or unwise, the bill must not become the basis for fresh cleavages between the army and the political opposition on one side and the government on the other. Even by Pakistani standards, it is too soon to forget the damage caused by extra-constitutional interventions," the editorial concluded.
Before the controversy in Pakistan intensified, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was upbeat about the bill, calling it "a historic chapter" in relations with Islamabad.
"What this bill does is to strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between the American people and the people of Pakistan," she said during a press briefing with Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi in Washington on October 6.
Clinton added that the aid will "help build civilian institutions, healthcare, education systems, infrastructure, and other important priorities of the government and people of Pakistan."
Analysts suggest that a public rift between Washington and Islamabad at this time would be detrimental for both.
The Pakistani military is set for a decisive push into the main Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, and public disagreements with its American allies, observers say, could embolden its extremist adversaries.
And the United States is already facing numerous political and military challenges in Afghanistan, a situation that has been further complicated by the country's controversial August 20 presidential election and internal divisions within the U.S. administration on its Afghan war strategy. A public fallout with Pakistan, analysts argue, could pose a further setback.