Islamabad: Pakistan`s powerful military rejected US attempts to link billions of dollars in foreign aid to increased monitoring of its anti-terror efforts, complicating American attempts to strike al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the Afghan border.
Although the US-backed government of President Asif Ali Zardari has the final say on whether to accept the money, the unusual public criticism threatens to force its hand and undermine military cooperation with the Americans just as the Pakistani Army prepares for what could be its most important offensive against extremists since the US-led anti-terror campaign began exactly eight years ago.
Any breakdown in intelligence sharing and other types of cooperation would hurt the American fight against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. US and NATO commanders say the war there cannot be won unless Islamabad does more to tackle extremists on its side of the border.
In Washington, President Barack Obama met with his national security team for a strategy session on Afghanistan after signalling that he was not considering a troop withdrawal. The session came amid new polls showing waning support for the war in the United States.
The military`s criticism of the bill came in a brief written statement that said senior commanders, including the Army Chief, "expressed serious concern regarding clauses impacting on national security."
Among other strings, the bill conditions US aid on whether Pakistan government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions.
Some analysts said the military`s statement had little to do with genuine dislike of a bill that stands to help crumbling schools, roads and hospitals. They said the Army was sending a message to the Pakistani and US governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that`s been subject to military rule for about half of its 62-year history.
"Clearly the government is under direct pressure from the army," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. "The Army`s public statement indicates that it is sending a message that says look, we are in charge of security issues."
The military is believed to have increased its cooperation with US forces over the past year, shared intelligence for numbers of US missile strikes on militant targets — most notably the one which killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. The US military clearly hopes for more Pakistani cooperation in hunting down other targets as well, including al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders who are less of a priority for the Pakistanis.
Political tension in Islamabad would pose another obstacle to US war goals. The debate comes as the Army stepped up preparations for a new offensive in South Waziristan, an operation that would face steep challenges, ranging from harsh terrain to well dug-in militants. An estimated 10,000 well-armed militants, including foreign fighters, are believed to be in the region.
Opposition lawmakers jumped at the opportunity to weaken a President widely viewed as a US puppet, calling on the government to reject the legislation as an unacceptable intrusion into Pakistan`s internal affairs. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute found that 80 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said they did not want the country to assist the US in the fight against terrorism.
The aid bill, which Obama is expected to sign, would triple US non-military assistance to Pakistan, providing USD 1.5 billion a year over the next five years. US officials say the goal is to alleviate widespread poverty, lessening the allure of Islamist extremists and supporting the country`s transition to democracy.
Zardari has championed the legislation as a break from past US aid packages, which he says came with more strings. He says the bill is proof that Washington is committed to helping the country long-term.
But to many here, it is sign of growing — and unwanted — US influence. In addition to civilian aid, the legislation authorises "such sums as are necessary" for counterterrorism assistance — but only on several conditions.