ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistan military declared Sunday that it doesn't need U.S. military aid, as the White House confirmed that Washington is stopping some $800 million in assistance to Pakistan's armed forces, further poisoning ties between the two anti-terror "allies."
Already tense relations between Islamabad and Washington had plummeted after the unilateral U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan in May, even before the current row over aid. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is struggling to combat Islamic extremists, while its economy is lurching towards disaster.
At stake is Pakistan's co-operation against al Qaida, the Taliban and other extremist groups that the increasingly bitter ties are putting at risk. Much of al Qaida's remaining leadership is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, while Pakistani territory is used as a safe haven by the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, fighting across the border in Afghanistan.
"The Pakistani relationship is difficult but it must be made to work over time," William Daley, the White House chief of staff, told ABC News on Sunday. "But until we get through these difficulties we will hold back some of the money that the American taxpayers have committed to give them." Daley said the figure amounted to about $800 million.
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The cutback seemed a direct response to recent moves by Pakistan, which expelled U.S. military trainers from the country, limited the ability of U.S. diplomats and other officials to get visas, and restricted CIA operations allowed on its territory.
There are also questions hanging over the future U.S. civilian aid, some $1.5 billion a year.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman of the Pakistan military, said that the military had received no formal notification of any aid being cut. He also pointed out that the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, had already declared that U.S. cash reimbursements to the military, known as Coalition Support Funds, should go instead to the civilian government, where there was more need.
"We have conducted our (anti-extremist) military operations without external support or assistance," said Abbas. "Reports coming out of the U.S. are aimed at undermining the authority of our military organizations."
The Obama administration leaks critical stories on a seemingly daily basis to the American press, which riles Pakistani public and official opinion against the United States. Many in Pakistan believe that there is a concerted American effort to weakened Pakistan and its armed forces, among the largest in the world.
"The U.S. can't decide they if they want to stay in this relationship or cut Pakistan off," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. "And Pakistan needs to work out whether it wants to be on the wrong side of international opinion and on the wrong side of the U.S."
Since 2001, the U.S. has provided $21 billion in civilian and military assistance to Pakistan, including $4.5 billion in the 2010-2011, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Two bills in Congress over the last week, which were voted down, would have cut off aid to Pakistan altogether.
Washington has long been highly critical of the relationship that the Pakistan military maintains with Afghan insurgents and other jihadist groups. Pakistan's refusal to launch an offensive aimed at the Haqqani network and suspicions that bin Laden benefitted from some kind of official support to live in Pakistan have further corroded ties.
Accusations from U.S. officials, made public last week by Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Pakistan's military and its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency was behind the murder of a journalist, Saleem Shahzad, have further damaged relations with Pakistan's armed forces.
New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday that he believes that bin Laden's successor as al Qaida chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in Pakistan's tribal area and that "he's one of those we would like to see the Pakistanis target." Pakistan responded Sunday by asking for the U.S. to share the intelligence on Zawahiri's whereabouts.
Pakistan meanwhile is fighting its homegrown extremists in its tribal area on the border with Afghanistan with a new offensive launched earlier this month, though not the jihadists in its territory focused on Afghanistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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