Pakistan's powerful military, preparing for a new offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida militants, expressed "serious concern" on Wednesday about a proposed multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package some consider an avenue to American meddling.
The military's unusual public statement came after a conference of army corps commanders presided over in Rawalpindi by Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The Pak army statement appears to bolster opposition leaders including those of PML(Nawaz) who are opposing conditions imposed by the US in the bill, popularly known as Kerry-Lugar bill.
The army statement also appears intended to show the Pakistani people that their army is not taking orders from Washington.
The aid bill, which awaits President Barack Obama's signature, would provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year over the next five years to spend on democratic, economic and social development programs. It also allows "such sums as may be necessary" for military aid, subject to special conditions related to its fight against militants.
U.S. officials say the bill's broad goal is to alleviate widespread poverty among the 175 million Pakistanis, lessening the allure of Taliban and other Islamist extremists who have wreaked havoc in the country and across the border in Afghanistan.
But to many in Pakistan, the conditions attached to the aid are a sign of growing, and unwanted, U.S. influence in Pakistan. The worries are burnished by a media-fueled backlash over U.S. plans to add hundreds more embassy staff in Islamabad. American officials say the staff are needed to disburse and monitor the aid.
A Parliament discussion of the issue began on a fiery note Wednesday night, with PML-N lawmaker Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan claiming "each and every page of the bill is reflective of the insulting attitude towards Pakistan."
PML(Q) Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain went to the extent of saying that the bill was a victory for India.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was more conciliatory, telling Parliament the government would look into the concerns, and had not yet agreed to accept the money.
"We have not done anything so far without consensus and we will develop consensus on this too," he said.
The military's statement was vague. It said senior commanders, including the army chief, "expressed serious concern regarding clauses (of the bill) impacting on national security." But it also referred to Parliament's deliberation on the subject, which it said would allow "the government to develop a national response."
One part of the bill says the U.S. must assess the extent of control Pakistan's government has over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions. In a country that has spent about half its 62-year existence under military rule, such language may not go down well with the army.
Pakistan Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government will look into the army's reservations.
Opposition leaders object to a number of items in the bill, including references to the southwest city of Quetta and eastern town of Muridke as militant hubs — a claim they say there is no evidence to back up.
The U.S. believes the Afghan Taliban's top leadership is hiding in Quetta, while Muridke is a base for Jamaat-ud-Dawah, previously Lashkar-e-Toiba militants linked to attacks on India.
The Quetta reference in particular could be seen as potentially giving latitude for the U.S. to launch missile strikes into Pakistan's southwest, something that would infuriate Pakistanis already unhappy with such attacks in the northwest region.
Language in the bill that says the U.S. will expect Pakistan to cooperate in efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons supplier networks alarms some because it suggests Pakistan provide "direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks."
"The tone and tenor of the bill in terms of conditionalities is not just intrusive, it's also overbearing and bordering on the humiliation of Pakistan," said Mushahid Hussain, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q. "We are not being treated kindly."