WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers and the Obama administration sought on Tuesday to allay concerns in Pakistan over conditions linked to billions of dollars in U.S. aid but made clear the legislation would not be changed.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was in Washington last week applauding the $7.5 billion aid plan, was back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after his country’s military protested against the bill. It ties some funds to fighting militants and is seen by critics as violating sovereignty.
Qureshi’s return underscores mistrust over U.S. intentions in Pakistan and the rift between its fragile civilian government and the military leadership that has ruled the South Asian nation for more than half of its 62-year history.
The United States is the biggest aid donor to nuclear-armed Pakistan and needs its help in hunting al Qaeda leaders and stopping Islamist militants from crossing the border into Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces there.
U.S. lawmakers, while sympathetic to delicate Pakistani politics, made clear conditions attached to the aid, which still has to be appropriated by Congress, could not be eased.
But Senator John Kerry, one of the authors of the bill, said an attempt would be made in the next 24 hours to clarify in writing some of the terms that he described as not having been characterized accurately “in some quarters.”
“The bill doesn’t have to be changed,” Kerry said after meeting Qureshi. “If there is a misinterpretation, it simply has to be clarified.”
Aides said lawmakers would issue a “joint explanatory statement” on Wednesday laying out what was in the bill.
The legislation, which Kerry said was designed as a “true sign of friendship” for Pakistan, provides for $1.5 billion in non-military aid over the next five years.
Reiterating that the bill did not impinge on Pakistani sovereignty, Kerry said he was confident “we will not only be able to adequately address the concerns that have been raised in Pakistan but we will provide a clarity that has force of law.”
Qureshi said he had conveyed to lawmakers the sovereignty worries raised in Pakistan’s parliament and said these fears needed to be addressed.
“We are going to work on it collectively to give it the correct interpretation,” Qureshi said after meeting Kerry.
Representative Howard Berman, another author of the bill, welcomed Qureshi to his House of Representatives office by saying he was “very aware of the sacrifices” Pakistan has made in taking on militants at home.
The bill was meant to support those operations and aid Pakistanis but “never, ever” to infringe on their sovereignty, Berman said.
A spokesman for one of the appropriations subcommittees made clear the aid would be subject to annual review.
“The amount and type of assistance Pakistan receives will continue to be determined on a yearly basis by the performance of the Pakistanis in fighting al Qaeda, strict accountability of funding, and the fiscal realities facing our nation,” said Matt Dennis, spokesman for Representative Nita Lowey, chair of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee.
But Representative Gary Ackerman, who had expressed anger last week at the furor in Pakistan over the bill, told Reuters he thought most of the money would “most likely” be appropriated, saying this was the historical pattern. Ackerman chairs the foreign affairs subcommittee on the region.
Before going to Capitol Hill, Qureshi met the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and later met national security advisor James Jones.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama saw the legislation as an important step forward and planned to sign the bill “soon.”
Several congressional sources expected the signing to take place on Wednesday but the White House could not confirm this.
“I think the opponents of this bill ... are misinformed or are characterizing this in a different way for their own political purposes,” Gibbs told reporters.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin said tensions underlined the “trust deficit” between the countries, and strong diplomatic efforts were needed to solve this.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by John O'Callaghan