WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday approved tripling U.S. aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for each of the next five years, part of an American plan to fight extremism with economic development.
The $1.5 billion in annual funding includes money for Pakistani schools, the judicial system, parliament and law enforcement agencies.
“This legislation marks an important step toward sustained economic and political cooperation with Pakistan,” said Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The bill, which includes $400 million in annual military aid for 2010-2013, passed as Pakistan’s military was preparing an all-out assault on Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally.
Mehsud has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of bombings in Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The push into South Waziristan on the Afghan border looms as the army is finishing off an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, launched after Taliban gains raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future.
The Pakistan aid measure passed by a simple voice vote in the Senate and will have to be reconciled with a version approved by the House of Representatives on June 11.
The bills set up so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, from which textiles and other items can be exported duty-free to the United States.
The zones represent an effort by the U.S. government to combat al-Qaeda and Taliban recruitment of insurgents by creating jobs for unemployed youth in underdeveloped parts of the two countries.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan told a House committee on Wednesday that the reconstruction zones that will benefit from the textile import scheme were in places where large numbers of Pakistanis had taken refuge from recent fighting.
Creating jobs in the Federally Administered tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA) served U.S. security interests, he said.
“Americans have died because people out of work in the FATA, the western tribal areas, joined the Taliban and jobs could reduce that,” said Holbrooke.
Editing by Chris Wilson