Pakistan lobbies against sanctions as the Senate takes up 9'11 bill

Pakistan’s weeks-long lobbying effort to thwart potential security aid sanctions is culminating this week as the Senate takes up its version of the 9/11 Commission recommendations bill, approved by the House in early January.

Legislation crafted by the office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and included in the 9/11 bill has put Pakistan’s embassy in Washington on the defensive. Officials there fear such blunt legislation could alter the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. 

The lobbying drive’s latest lap coincides with Vice President Cheney’s unannounced trip to the country, where he expressed Monday the administration’s concern that al Qaeda is regrouping in the tribal areas at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and pressed for a clampdown ahead of a Taliban “spring offensive” in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s role as both a key non-NATO ally of the U.S.-led war against terrorism and a host to an unruly population of Islamic extremists has led to a widening rift between Congress and the White House on how to handle cooperation with Pakistan.

According to a Monday New York Times report, Cheney told Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf that a Democratic-led Congress could cut aid to his country if it fails to hunt down al Qaeda operatives.

The Bush administration, which has been publicly complimentary of Pakistan as an ally, opposed the House legislation imposing security aid sanctions on Pakistan, but now is using Congress as a sledgehammer against the Pakistani government, said a source following the issue closely.

“They know they can’t threaten Musharraf directly,” said the source. “It is a tactic that has some teeth in it.”

A congressional source said Cheney’s trip to Pakistan and the threat that Congress may cut off aid will put Pakistan issues on the front burner in the Senate and increases pressure on the chamber to act. 

None of the legislation dealing with the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations likely to be taken up in the Senate includes any reference to Pakistan. Such language would come under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), although any other senator can offer legislation.

A 9/11 bill authored by New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez (D) and Frank Lautenberg (D) includes Pakistan-specific clauses and has been referred to Biden’s committee.

On Monday it was unclear whether Biden or another committee member would offer amendments relating to Pakistan. According to a congressional source, such legislation could be included in the 9/11 bill, but the Senate may want to take a more comprehensive approach toward Pakistan than the House did — potentially in separate legislation.

The House Pakistan language, which received no debate and little notice in the lower chamber, sets limitations on U.S. security assistance to Pakistan.

A license for any item controlled under the Arms Export Control Act may not be approved unless President Bush certifies that the “government of Pakistan is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control, including in the cities of Quetta and Chaman and in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

The president, however, can waive the limitations if he certifies that lifting them is important for national-security reasons.

The certification would be difficult for the administration to meet, according to a congressional source. “The administration has not done anyone any favors by saying preemptively that they would be able to certify that,” the source said. “It shows a large degree of contempt towards Congress by certifying something that is not truthful.”

The House legislation also directs the president to impose sanctions for transfers of nuclear technology involving foreign nationals. It also requires the president to identify nuclear proliferation network countries and suspend arms sales to such countries.

If applied retroactively, it could apply to Pakistan and the A.Q. Khan network. A.Q. Khan, considered the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, confessed to proliferating nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Pakistan will not turn him over to the United States, as such move would constitute a national humiliation, said a source close to the issue.

The House acknowledges that Pakistan has been an important partner in helping the United States remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and combat terrorism in the frontier Pakistan provinces.

Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, led a concerted push in the Senate, the administration and also the House to try and repeal the language proposed by the House. 

“Pakistan has done more for counterterrorism than anybody else,” Durrani said in an interview. “It seems people tend to forget all our contributions. Since 9/11 we put our military where our mouth is, so to say — all our assets.”

He said that Pakistan continues to support U.S. efforts in the region however it can. He cautioned that the issues arising between the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan stem from poor coordination.

“We need to be clear on what we are expect[ing] from each other; we need to be clear about what each other’s capabilities are and we need to sit across the table, roll up our sleeves and start discussing,” he said.

Instead of following the spirit of the 9/11 Commission report, the House used the report to “bushwhack” Pakistan, Durrani told The Hill. “A bill like H.R. 1 is grossly unfair.” 

The legislation could backfire in Pakistan, where Musharraf is taking heat from those who think he is a puppet of the United States as well as from others who say that he has managed to strengthen the religious parties, the congressional source said.

In addition, there have been doubts about the loyalties of some members of Musharraf’s intelligence service, and assassination attempts against him have been linked to al Qaeda.

“The House legislation sends a strong message that the status quo is not acceptable,” said the congressional source. “But could we do something more? If our goal is to achieve greater cooperation, is this the most effective method?”

Instead of rushing to pass legislation of a symbolic nature, the Senate and Congress should develop a more comprehensive strategy that would secure cooperation, the source said.

Rather than being used to curry favor with the military elite, the source explained, more money should be allotted to non-military sectors to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, is boosting its presence at the border with Afghanistan and has increased the number of posts at passing points, Durrani maintained. Pakistan also is shutting down about 50 percent of the less-frequented border crossing points to better monitor those that will remain open.

The military also is toying with the idea of planting minefields approved under the Geneva Convention to enforce border control.

Durrani added that Pakistan is introducing biometrics systems to keep track of people without identification papers.

Pakistan has also placed security elements inside and outside refugee camps.

“We have appealed to top senators and representatives and have tried to give them the true picture to the best of our ability,” he said.