WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress on Wednesday approved tripling nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to help fight extremism in the nuclear-armed country, sending the measure to President Barack Obama for signing into law.
Obama had urged the bill’s passage to promote stability in a crisis-ridden nation that is key to the U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan. Final action on the legislation came as the House of Representatives approved it.
The legislation authorizes $1.5 billion a year for the next five years as part of a bid to build a new relationship with Pakistan that no longer focuses largely on military ties, but also on Pakistan’s social and economic development.
In an effort to address concerns Pakistan’s military may support extremist groups, the bill also stipulates that U.S. military aid will cease if Pakistan does not help fight “terrorists,” including Taliban insurgents and al Qaeda followers taking sanctuary along its borders with Afghanistan.
“We can’t allow al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that threatens our national security interests to operate with impunity in the tribal regions or any other part of Pakistan,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Representative Howard Berman.
“Nor can we permit the Pakistani state — and its nuclear arsenal — to be taken over by the Taliban,” he added.
To keep military aid flowing, Pakistan must also cooperate to dismantle nuclear supplier networks, the bill said.
Islamabad could do this by offering “relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks,” it said, referring to rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who ran a black market in atomic technology.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose office will be in charge of monitoring much of the nonmilitary aid included in the law, told lawmakers earlier this year that the Obama administration was confident Pakistan would not use the increased funding to strengthen its nuclear arsenal.
But some lawmakers expressed skepticism that Pakistan would ever become a real partner. “Both governments — the Chinese and the Pakistanis — plot and maneuver against our interests all the time,” said Representative Dana Rohrbacher, a Republican.
“The threat of radical Islam is real, but it’s not going to be solved by us being irresponsible” with billions in taxpayer money, he said.
The assistance, which must be approved by congressional appropriators annually from 2010 to 2014, is intended to fund a range of projects, including Pakistani schools and roads, agricultural development, energy generation, water resource management and the judicial system.
The bill was approved by the Senate last week.
Passage followed lengthy negotiations among lawmakers and the administration over what conditions to place on Pakistan, where officials had urged no strings be attached.
Obama has also endorsed the creation of “reconstruction opportunity zones” in border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, from which goods could be exported duty-free to the United States. But while this measure has passed the House, it is stalled in the Senate.
Pakistan has been struggling to stem Islamist violence and bolster an economy kept afloat by foreign donations and a $11.3 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Cynthia Osterman