Pakistan pushed to its limits
NEW YORK - United States President Barack Obama, co-chairing with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown the first summit meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, on Thursday announced that the US Senate had unanimously passed the Kerry-Lugar bill, authorizing US$1.5 billion in economic assistance for Pakistan annually over five years.
This amount, which is triple what Pakistan has been receiving, in addition to the several billions of dollars Pakistan receives annually in other military and non-military aid.
In response, it appears that Pakistan's political leaders have consented to military operations against militants and al-Qaeda in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas on theborder with Afghanistan.
Although the military has recently conducted successful operations in other trouble spots in the tribal areas, such as Swat, Islamabad has been reluctant to commit fully to engagement in the Waziristans, where the Pakistan Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies have a strong foothold and from where militants fuel the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmud Qureshi, flanked by Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, gave a briefing after the summit meeting.
He said the gathering, which included 26 countries and international organizations, had unanimously declared military operations against the Taliban in the Malakand area a success, adding that Pakistan would follow a similar model in the tribal areas - a clear hint that the government had agreed to send armed forces into the Waziristans.
While Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is ostensibly in New York for the United Nations General Assembly gathering, on the sidelines and in other interaction he has been well feted by the Obama administration as the person who can best further US interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan - as much as Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani does and former president General Pervez Musharraf did.
Zardari will also be pleased with the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting, at which members acknowledged Pakistan's economic difficulties and institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank vowed to immediately undertake water and energy related projects for the country.
"If you go through the history of US aid, you would not find a parallel of such an aid package as the Kerry-Lugar bill," Holbrooke said, saying it was "a very important step forward". The bill points to Pakistan as a critical friend and ally and notes the profound sacrifices it has made in the "war on terror". The money provided by the bill will be used to fund a wide range of development projects, from schools and infrastructure to the judicial system.
The language of the version that was approved in the senate - it is now to go before the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives where it is expected to pass easily - was less stringent than the original. Specific references to India as well as to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced "father" of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, were eliminated.
The earlier version had wanted to make Pakistan give access to Khan and other scientists involved in nuclear proliferation. It also had urged Pakistan to coordinate its activities against terrorism with India. In the revised version, it only wants Pakistan to liaise with neighboring countries.
Earlier, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US military commander for Afghanistan, said in a report that India's political and economic influence was increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment.
The report said the Afghan government was perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. "While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India," said the report.
The bill also contains a waiver for every condition that is imposed on Pakistan, but now this can be granted by the secretary of state, not the president as earlier proposed. None of the conditions can set in motion automatic sanctions.
The bill underlines the importance of supporting Pakistan's national security needs in its ongoing counter-insurgency battle and in improving its border security, while requiring the government to demonstrate a sustained effort to combat extremist groups and show progress towards defeating them.
Foreign Minister Qureshi told Asia Times Online that a detailed package for the capacity enhancement of the Pakistani armed forces had been agreed on. However, he clarified that it only involved modern counter-insurgency equipment and training programs.
Pakistan has got what it wanted. The onus now rests with Zardari to deliver. This will be the most difficult and dangerous part, to take on the Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Pakistan in a struggle in which there are no guarantees of success.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.