Qureshi takes aid bill concerns to Washington

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s foreign minister flew to the United States on Monday to convey government concerns about a US aid bill that link some funds to fighting terrorism and which critics say violates the country’s sovereignty.

The US Congress late last month approved a bill tripling aid for Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years and sent it to President Barack Obama for signing into law.

But in an effort to address U.S. concerns that Pakistan’s military may support militant groups, the bill stipulates conditions for security aid, among them that Pakistan must show commitment to fighting terrorism.

The bill also provides for an assessment of how effective the civilian government’s control is over the military, including in the promotion of top military officials.

The army last week voiced ‘serious concern’ about the impact of aspects of the bill on national security. Its unusual public intervention in a diplomatic matter appeared to have opened a rift with the government, which supported the US legislation.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met the army chief and the chief of the main military intelligence agency at the weekend and agreed to take their concerns to Washington.

‘I am going to Washington with the support of the political and military leadership of Pakistan, and there I will share with them our concerns and the concerns of our parliament,’ Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters.

‘Keeping in view the mandate given to me, I will now engage the U.S. administration and the legislators. The objective is to keep and protect our supreme national interests,’ Qureshi said.

ECONOMIC PROBLEMS

Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the country for more than half of its 62-year history.

Analysts have not predicted any immediate showdown between the military, which has vowed to stay out of politics, and the government, but the army criticism was seen as a potential boost for the opposition, which has whipped up criticism of Zardari.

Qureshi said the bill was very important for Pakistan, given the country’s economic problems.

‘You cannot deny the significance of the assistance Pakistan is getting through this bill,’ he said.

Investors in Pakistan’s stock market, keen to see more external funding, have been watching the controversy.

The United States is Pakistan’s biggest aid donor and needs nuclear-armed Pakistan’s help in hunting al Qaeda leaders and stopping Islamist militants crossing the border into Afghanistan to fight US-led forces there.

Clauses in the bill requires US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to certify that Pakistan is dismantling militant bases in its northwest, in the southwestern city of Quetta, where the US administration believes Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding, as well as in Punjab province, where anti-India groups are based.—Reuters

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