The Kerry-Lugar Bill has become a hugely contentious issue in Pakistan despite its promise of $1.5 billion annually in non-military aid over the next five years.

For years, Pakistani politicians, media and civil society have screamed themselves hoarse about how the U.S. never supported democracy in Pakistan, that it preferred to bankroll military dictators instead of strengthening the hands of civilian dispensations, and that this is why the country is in such a mess.

Now that it seems the U.S. want to do just the opposite — pour money into a democratic Pakistan in order to stabilise the economy and the civilian government — there is now an outcry that the aid package jeopardises the country’s national interests, and that it is an insidious plan by the U.S. to encroach on Pakistani sovereignty by undermining the powers of the military.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill, which was passed into law by the U.S. Congress last month, and is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, has become a hugely contentious issue in Pakistan, despite its promise of $1.5 billion annually in non-military aid — triple the amount it has been receiving so far — over the next five years, and a separate undetermined amount in security assistance.

New Delhi’s contention is that the U.S. has been too generous with the money and has not attached stringent conditions to it, and that Pakistan will divert the aid into beefing itself up militarily against India.

Tide of protest

But the exact opposite view prevails in Pakistan. There is a rising tide of protest against the conditions. Pressure is building on the government to reject the aid, which many have described as “peanuts,” if the conditions are not dropped. The Pakistan Army too has revealed its hand, making it known through select media outlets that it opposes the conditions.

The conditions are spelt out in the text of the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Enhanced Co-operation Act, and even though the U.S. has said they apply to security-related assistance, it has not helped to soothe ruffled feathers.

The assistance has been linked to an annual certificate from the Secretary of State that Pakistan is co-operating in nuclear non-proliferation efforts including “providing relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks.”

Though A.Q. Khan is not mentioned by name, the wording of the clause has been taken to mean a thinly veiled demand for access to the internationally disgraced scientist, who has lived under restrictions since 2004, after his confession to selling nuclear secrets abroad.

The Secretary of State must also certify that Pakistan remains committed to combating terrorism, and shown progress in ceasing support, “including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist terrorist groups” that have conducted attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or against the territory of “neighbouring countries.”

Again, India is not mentioned, but that has offered no consolation, as the terrorist groups mentioned in the text are not just Al Qaeda, Taliban, but also Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are seen as India-focussed jihadi groups. The text also mentions Muridke, a town close to Lahore where the LeT/Jamat-ud-dawa headquarters are located, as a base for terror groups, along with Quetta, where the American believe Taliban leader Mullah Omar is hiding.

The PEACE Act requires a monitoring report every six months routed through the Secretary of State, that will assess, among other things, progress by Pakistan on the same terror-related issues.

It must also include an assessment of whether assistance provided to Pakistan has directly or indirectly aided the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Importantly, it will also include an assessment of the extent to which the civilian government exercises control of the military, including on the issue of military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration.

The Pakistan People’s Party-government and a handful of other supporters of the legislation are arguing that the money is just what Pakistan needs, as the aid is focussed on the country’s economic and social development, which in turn will help strengthen the hands of present and future civilian dispensation.

As for the conditions, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoor Qureshi, and Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira have pointed out that they do not contradict any of Pakistan’s stated official positions, so conforming to them cannot go against the national interest. Pakistan does not support proliferation and is battling terrorists, so where is the problem, they ask.

But the critics, who far outnumber the supporters, have described the conditions as outrageous and say Pakistan would do well to reject the whole package. Even if the conditions do not go against Pakistan’s stated policies, critics have called them accusatory in tone because they make it clear that Pakistan has individuals who have indulged in nuclear proliferation, that it has harboured terrorist groups that have carried out attacks against neighbouring countries, and that it must cease such activities in order to qualify for the aid.

Government on the defensive

The government, despite its stout defence of the U.S. legislation, has been put on the defensive after the Pakistan Muslim League (N) threw its weight behind the protests against it. Party leader Nawaz Sharif, who is at the moment away in Saudi Arabia, has been quiet, but leader of the Opposition Chaudhary Nisar raised the issue in Parliament earlier this week, accusing the government of compromising the national interest and ceding sovereignty to the U.S.

As a result of the all the protests, the government has agreed to a full-fledged debate on the issue in the National Assembly.

Surprisingly, the condition that seems to have caused the most anger is the one about the civilian government’s oversight on the military, including in the matter of promotions, even though the PML(N) should have welcomed this as Nawaz Sharif was himself a victim in 1999 of the military.

The News, a daily newspaper, has run a series of reports questioning U.S. intentions in wanting to alter the balance in favour of the civilian government, even suggesting that certain sections of the present government may have secretly lobbied for it in order to clip the Pakistan Army’s wings. The newspaper has repeatedly pointed an accusing finger at Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, for not lobbying enough against the conditions.

President Asif Ali Zardari has asked his party’s parliamentarians to spare no effort to defend the bill in parliament. But with the Pakistan military too now appearing to be weighing in against it, the isolation of the Pakistan People’s Party government on the issue now seems complete.

Army calls it an “insult”

Quoting “military sources”, Pakistani newspapers reported that Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani feels the conditions attached to the bill are “instrusive” and an “insult” to the military.

Gen. Kayani is reported to have conveyed this to General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, at a meeting at the Pakistan military headquarters in Rawalpindi on Tuesday. The Pakistan Army chief is also reported to have given much the same message to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Sunday.

Observers have found it intriguing that all those opposed to conditions in the legislation, including the Pakistan Army, seem to have woken up only after it was passed by the U.S. Congress, even though the text has been around since at least June. No attempt was made in these months by any of Pakistan’s “stakeholders” to modify these conditions.

But the hue and cry has rattled the government completely, and has added to the rumours and speculation about “imminent changes” in the governing hierarchy. It has to be one of the biggest ironies that a plan to strengthen democracy in Pakistan is now threatening to destabilise the country’s first democratically elected government in a decade.

Correction

The last sentence of an article “Hue and cry in Pakistan over Kerry-Lugar conditions” (Op-Ed, October 8, 2009) was “It has to be one of the biggest ironies that a plan to strengthen democracy in Pakistan is now threatening to destabilise the country’s first democratically government in a decade.” It should have been “democratically elected government”.

RELATED NEWS

U.S. says no to N-power plant for Pak February 27, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion