Rice defends US aid to Pakistan

January 22, 2008 7:08:19 AM PST
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the Bush administration will fight efforts to curb billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan while warning President Pervez Musharraf he must support and promote democracy.Ahead of talks with Musharraf in Switzerland on Wednesday - the highest-level, face-to-face U.S. contact with the Pakistani leader since last month's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto - Rice said it is critical that February legislative elections be free and fair.

"The situation in Pakistan is very complicated, but our strong view is that we have to have a long-term, consistent, predictable relationship with Pakistan, not with any one person, but with the institutions of Pakistan," she said.

"We are all working very hard with the Pakistanis to try to ensure that the elections will be an opportunity for Pakistan to get back on the democratic path and an opportunity for Pakistanis to come together," Rice said.

"That's very much on everybody's mind," she told reporters on her plane as she flew to Germany for a meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on new sanctions on Iran.

"But I think the assistance is aimed at very important goals and that isn't going to change," Rice said.

Those goals include training and equipping Pakistan's security forces to fight insurgents, encouraging the country's "moderate center" to play a more active role in politics, and promoting development, she said.

Rice's comments came on the same day that Islamic militants in Pakistan attacked a fort near the Afghan border, sparking fighting with government forces that left at least five troops and 37 fighters dead, the Pakistani army said.

The attack occurred in South Waziristan, a lawless tribal region where al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants operate.

Musharraf played down the impact of recent attacks in the region, saying Tuesday they were "pinpricks" that his government must manage.

Also Tuesday, Adm. William Fallon - the head of the U.S. Central Command and top commander of American forces in the Middle East - was in Pakistan for talks with army chief Ashfaq Kayani. The Pakistan army said the two men discussed the "security situation" in the region, but gave no more details.

Many are looking to Pakistan's Feb. 18 parliamentary elections to determine if Musharraf is serious about democracy following several steps last year, including the imposition of emergency rule, that have placed his commitment into question.

Although that decree was rescinded and he has stepped down as army chief, Musharraf is facing widespread discontent at home and his credentials abroad as an ally in the war on terror have been sullied by a rise in activity by insurgents, including the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The United States has alone given Musharraf's government and military some $10 billion in assistance since Sept. 11, 2001, and some in Congress are demanding more restrictions on that aid. Some has already been tied to democratic improvements but calls for cuts are expected to grow if the upcoming elections do not meet international standards.

Musharraf is on a tour of Europe trying to shore up Western support. On Monday in Brussels, he promised that the elections would be free and fair.

But he also urged detractors to be more patient with his nation's efforts to achieve higher standards of human rights, decrying the West's "obsession" with speedy democracy. Rice praised Musharraf as a "good ally in the war on terrorism," but brushed aside his criticism.

"No one has ever said that democracy is something that is born in a minute," she said. "It does take time, but you have to get started and you have to start putting in place the institutions that will secure democratic values and that will allow people to exercise their rights to freedom."

"Every leader has an obligation to push that goal as far forward as possible and that's what we're saying," Rice said. "Should one be obsessed with the rights of human beings to live in freedom? Maybe so."