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US looking to retool Pakistan relationship

Former president George W Bush recast the US relationship with India, forging closer ties. Could President Barack Obama do the same for US policy towards its nuclear-armed rival Pakistan?

world Updated: Mar 14, 2009 11:43 IST

Former president George W Bush recast the US relationship with India, forging closer ties. Could President Barack Obama do the same for US policy towards its nuclear-armed rival Pakistan?

Upon taking office on January 20, Obama ordered a sweeping review of the US strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan, and US military and diplomatic officials say the road to victory there runs through neighbor Pakistan.

Obama is set to unveil his new approach before a major international summit on Afghanistan on March 31 in The Hague -- but already the US Congress is looking to shape US military and development aid to steady Pakistan's democracy and bolster its fight against Islamist extremists.

Lawmakers are trying to learn from past efforts and convince Pakistan's people that Washington has a heartfelt stake in their political and economic fortunes, and is not merely looking out for US interests, experts say.

The result is an approach likely to vastly expand US economic aid, while tying military help to pledges from the country's armed forces to do more against extremists as well as promises to stay out of the country's political and judicial life, lawmakers and aides say.

"This represents the new way the relationship will function," Shuja Nawaz, who leads the Atlantic Center think tank's South Asia Center, told AFP by telephone on Friday.

A centerpiece of the new approach is likely to be legislation that would triple non-military US assistance to Pakistan to 7.5 billion dollars over the next five years, congressional and administration aides say.

To qualify for US military aid, Pakistan would have to show it is doing enough to prevent Al-Qaeda and Taliban Islamist fighters from using its territory as a base and that Pakistan's military is not "materially interfering" in the country's domestic political or judicial processes.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic chairman, John Kerry, and the panel's top Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, could introduce the measure as early as next week.

"The big chance is that this is a long-term commitment. Pakistanis have often worried that the United States is here with them only for the short term," said Nawaz, who has discussed the legislation with Kerry.

With the Kerry-Lugar plan, "there is a consistency and a confidence that the aid will continue no matter which government is in power locally," the analyst said.

This would build on another Obama-backed approach: legislation that aims to use trade-spurred job growth as an antidote to the poverty that fuels Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The bill would give goods from certain restive parts of those countries duty-free access to the US market in a bid to promote legitimate economic activity where poverty fuels terrorist recruitment and the illegal drug trade.

The key for Washington is that, taken together, "US economic aid packages are not solely designed for the tribal areas. The key is for the United States to be seen as helping the people of Pakistan as a whole," said Nawaz.

"The previous, kind of, fixation on only sending aid packages dealing with the FATA (tribal areas) was really giving the wrong message to Pakistan, that the US was only doing it to protect its own interests," he said.

Other changes need to occur, such as boosting counter-insurgency training for Pakistan police and perhaps "redirecting US military assistance towards that goal," said Nawaz.

"The army can clear areas, the police are better suited to hold," he said, a reference to counterinsurgency theory that calls for clearing areas of fighters, holding those areas with the help of the population, and building institutions to prevent the insurgents' return.