WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States announced $2 billion in military aid for Pakistan on Friday as the two countries sought to dispel doubts about Islamabad’s commitment to uprooting Islamist insurgents from safe havens on its soil.
“The United States has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism efforts against the extremists who threaten us both than Pakistan,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in announcing plans to ask Congress for a five-year aid package.
The military aid, which would help put Pakistan’s war planning on a more stable footing, would complement a $7.5 billion multiyear package of civilian assistance already cleared by U.S. lawmakers.
Clinton said the administration would also ask for $27 million to fund military education and training in Pakistan, one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign military aid after Israel and Egypt.
The aid package, announced at the third round of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, was a top issue for Pakistanis attending the three-day session.
It helped balance the fact President Barack Obama plans to bypass Islamabad next month when he travels to rival India. Although Obama has promised to visit Pakistan in 2011, the move could be seen as a slight.
“(Pakistanis) are very aware that the president is going to India next month and they want to demonstrate to their people that there is a strong U.S.-Pakistani connection,” said Stephanie Sanok, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the package represented “reasonable, solid, positive incremental progress, but nothing game-changing.”
“We have no assurance yet that we’re headed for an acceptable outcome here and I would have gone for more of a game-changer,” O’Hanlon said, like proposing a nuclear cooperation deal similar to the one the United States has with India.
The strategic dialogue came as Washington and Islamabad work to ease strained relations caused by U.S. pressure for Pakistan to move more aggressively against insurgent safe havens, and a cross-border incursion that killed two Pakistani border guards.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi rejected critics who argue that Islamabad’s heart is not in the fight against the militants, some of whom are believed to have shadowy ties with Pakistani intelligence services.
“Prophets of doom are back in business, painting doomsday scenarios about our alliance,” he said. “They are dead wrong.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said a “relatively small number” of Pakistani military units would not receive assistance because of human rights concerns.
He indicated the units had been excluded for some time under restrictions imposed by Congress but declined to say when Pakistan was informed.
Looming over the strategic dialogue was the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups.
Obama’s administration is under pressure to show progress in the U.S.-led war before a December strategy review. The review will begin to assess how quickly Washington can draw down U.S. forces after Obama’s July 2011 target for beginning transfer to Afghan security control.
The Obama administration has pointedly pressed Pakistan for more aggressive action against safe havens in North Waziristan, saying in a recent report to Congress that Pakistani forces had avoided fights with al Qaeda and related militants, in part for political reasons.
Stepped-up attacks in the region by U.S. drone aircraft have aggravated public opinion in Pakistan and relations deteriorated further after the cross-border helicopter incursion killed two Pakistani border guards.
The incident prompted Pakistan to close a border crossing near the Khyber Pass to NATO supply convoys for 10 days until apologies were made by U.S. and NATO officials.
Pakistani officials called for better coordination to avoid incidents like the killing of the border guards and warning that violence in disputed Kashmir threatened the stability of the region.
Qureshi urged Obama to press India for a solution in Kashmir, a Muslim majority region claimed by Pakistan and India that has been rocked by violent clashes and protests against Indian rule.
“President Obama has always understood the importance of a Kashmir solution. His coming visit to the region is the time to begin to redeem the pledge,” Qureshi said.
Editing by Peter Cooney