x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Generals challenge US aid caveats

A conference of senior army generals has confronted Zardari's government over their concerns about America's five-year aid programme, the Kerry-Lugar Bill.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's powerful army generals on Wednesday publicly confronted the country's fledgling democratic government over a proposed United States economic assistance programme, describing it as containing "clauses impacting on national security". In their first public challenge to the administration of Asif Ali Zardari, the president and chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), a conference of 17 senior generals chaired by Gen Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, called on parliament to address their concerns.

"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 issues, enabling the government to develop a national response," said a statement issued by the military's Inter Services Public Relations directorate. The conference was held hours before Barack Obama, the US president, had been expected to sign the US$7.5 billion, (Dh27.5 billion) five-year aid programme, knwon as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, into law. The signing was deferred, newspapers reported.

The generals did not specify which clauses of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, they objected to. However, a crescendo of protest by army sympathisers within the media and political parties, following the bill's approval by the US Congress last week, has focused on its references to illicit nuclear weapons proliferation and clandestine support for terrorists by the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies.

Those critics have said the bill sought to compromise Pakistani sovereignty, saying it sought access for US investigators to Abdul Qadeer Khan, a scientist revered as the father of the country's nuclear weapons programme. Mr Khan was caught selling nuclear weapons technology to Iran and Libya in 2004 and, under intense US pressure, was arrested by the then Pakistani military government led by Pervez Musharraf.

Critics had also claimed that the Kerry-Lugar bill named Quetta, the capital of Western Balochistan province, and Muridke, a town near the central city of Lahore, as "centres of terrorism". US officials have repeatedly asserted that the Afghan Taliban leadership is based in Quetta, while Muridke is the erstwhile headquarters of the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant organisation that launched the November 2008 terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai.

The government, which claimed the US Congress's unanimous approval of the Kerry-Lugar bill as a diplomatic victory, had sought to calm public concerns, saying that critics were responding to "hearsay" and that the bill approved by Congress contained no such provisions. " Critics of the bill should first read it," Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister said on Tuesday. The same day, Qamar Zaman Kaira, the minister of information, had done just that at a seminar in Islamabad that was broadcast live by the television, concluding that the bill's stance on issues requiring certification was the same as the Pakistan government's.

Mr Kaira also highlighted a Kerry-Lugar bill stipulation, ignored by the bill's critics, requiring the US certification that the Pakistani military had not subverted democracy or the independence of the judiciary. The Pakistani military has staged four coups since independence in 1947, directly ruling the country for half its existence. Yet another, albeit underplayed, stipulation of the bill requires the US government to certify that the civilian government controls Pakistan's defence budget - something that has yet to happen.

Political analysts said the army's opposition had little to do with the security-related clauses of the Kerry-Lugar bill, because the Musharraf junta had agreed to accept US economic and military assistance under similar terms under two previous US laws - the 9/11 Commission's Recommendations Implementation Act of 2001 and the Aid to Pakistan Act of 2007. The previous laws had demanded unfettered access to Mr Khan, the scientist, by name, whereas the Kerry-Lugar bill does not, the analysts said.

"I share public concerns that the bill might infer access to Mr Khan, but why is it that the army is objecting now when it had arrested and publicly humiliated him earlier?" said Hamid Mir, the executive editor of Geo News cable channel and arguably the country's most popular current affairs anchor. "The army accepted tighter conditions when it was in power, but that was concealed from the public. The real issue is that the army does not want to lose its overall political control of the country," he said in an interview.

Recent events bear out his analysis. The Supreme Court had on July 31 ruled that a November 2007 imposition of a state of emergency by Mr Musharraf was unconstitutional, but did not press the government to prosecute him for high treason. However, a detailed ruling issued on October 1 by the 14-member bench - the largest in Pakistan's judicial history - went to extraordinary lengths to ensure against future military intervention, declaring that any participating soldiers would be participating in an act of treason.

"Any member of the armed forces, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the three services chiefs - or any person acting under their authority or on their behalf, who acts - without any direction by the federal government, acts in violation of the constitution and the law, and does so at his own risk," the court ruled. thussain@thenational.ae