Congress agrees to freeze $700M in Pakistan aid

Pakistanis take part in an anti NATO rally in Islamabad, Pakistan on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

In a reflection of the uneasy relationship between the United States and Pakistan, Congress agreed on a defense bill that includes a provision to freeze some $700 million in assistance until Pakistan comes up with a strategy to deal with improvised explosive devices.

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced late Monday that they had reached agreement on a massive $662 billion defense bill addressing a wide range of costs: military personnel, weapons systems, national security programs in the Energy Department, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

But it also signaled Congress' growing dissatisfaction with Pakistan, which is seen as either not doing enough to combat terrorism, or in some cases actively aiding militant groups. Pakistan has insisted it has done all it can to combat terrorism.

In the defense bill, Congress is specifically looking to prod Pakistan to take more action against homemade bombs, arguing that fertilizer smuggled into Afghanistan is being used to create explosives.

The U.S. wants "assurances that Pakistan is countering improvised explosive devices in their country that are targeting our coalition forces", Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., said.

In Pakistan, however, the measure has been seen as another possible blow to the already frayed U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

"I don't think this is a wise move. It could hurt ties. There should instead be efforts to increase cooperation. I don't see any good coming out of this," Salim Saifullah, chairman of Pakistan's Senate foreign relations committee, told Reuters.

Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit, also told Reuters that increased U.S. pressure could hurt relations and said the two nations should instead pursue "cooperative approaches."

Ties between the two nations reached a low point in May, following the secret U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden, who lived for years in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Pakistan accused the U.S. of violating its sovereignty in the raid, while American lawmakers questioned how Pakistani officials could have been unaware of bin Laden's presence in the country.

Relations suffered another serious blow last month when a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost, after which Pakistan closed important border crossings used by NATO to ship fuel and other supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. lawmakers have pushed Pakistan to control more strictly the distribution of ammonium nitrate, but only draft legislation has been introduced in, Reuters reports.

Meeting the latest U.S. demands may prove difficult because of widespread corruption and lax border security. One businessman told Reuters just how easy it is to transport fertilizer, which is a key component of Pakistan's critical agriculture sector, across the Afghanistan border.

"We pay a 1,200-rupee ($13) bribe to the Pakistani Frontiers Corps on the border for every car carrying fertilizer," said Kamal Khan. "Fertilizer is smuggled on trucks, pickup trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and donkey carts."

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