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WASHINGTON: The US administration has informed Congress that the consolidation of democratic institutions is one of its key initiatives in Pakistan.

Ambassador Richard Olson conveyed this message while justifying the $742 million US assistance for Pakistan during a hearing on next fiscal year’s budget proposals at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr Olson, who served in Islamabad for three years and is now Washington’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also underlined the US administration’s other priorities in its dealings with Pakistan.

“Our core initiatives in Pakistan include promoting economic growth, countering terrorism, fostering regional stability and promoting the consolidation of democratic institutions,” he said.

Mr Olson reminded the lawmakers, who had urged the administration to discontinue its military aid to Islamabad, that Pakistan remained a key state in a very sensitive region.

“Our relationship with Pakistan, a growing country with more than 190 million people, a nuclear arsenal, terrorism challenges and a key role to play in the region, will remain a critical one,” he said.

The US diplomat acknowledged that the Pakistani government was engaged in a concerted and difficult fight against terror groups that threatened Pakistanis.

But he repeated a long-time US complaint that Pakistan did not show equal enthusiasm in dealing with all terrorist groups. “Unfortunately, Pakistan does not take equivalent steps against groups that threaten its neighbours,” he said.

The US administration has “repeatedly and frankly” urged “most senior Pakistani leaders” also to target the Haqqani network in their wider counterterrorism operations in order to keep their commitment not to discriminate between terrorist organisations, Mr Olson said.

“Effective engagement with Pakistan is grounded in our national interest. We have carefully calibrated our FY 2017 budget request balancing global funding constraints and our interest and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he assured the lawmakers.

During the debate, Congressman David Cicilline noted that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were being used to settle feuds, grab land or persecute religious minorities by making false allegations. “Are there any incremental changes that can be made to these laws that would improve the situation?” he asked.

Ambassador Olson pointed out that Pakistani authorities recently executed the man who had killed Punjab governor Salman Taseer for commenting on these laws.

Mumtaz Qadri’s case was “widely interpreted in Pakistan as a signal of resolute opposition to vigilantism and to those who would take the law into their own hands,” he said.

“There were protests at the execution of Qadri, but they have not been successful,” he noted. “This illustrates the divide in Pakistani society.”

Mr Olson said he had spent three years in Pakistan where he observed that many Pakistanis were unhappy with the current situation. “I think that they are feeling a bit more emboldened now by some of the actions by the Pakistani Supreme Court to limit the abuse of blasphemy laws and to also extend for protection of law to religious minorities. We need to do everything possible to encourage them,” he said.

Another Congressman, Brad Sherman, insisted that Pakistan was bent upon destabilising Afghanistan because they “want a weak and divided Afghanistan under any circumstances as a matter of Pakistani national unity and national security”.

He also named a number of Sindhi political activists, such as Anwar Leghari and Kehar Ansari – who were killed or had disappeared and urged the Obama administration to help find the missing.

A senior US official, Donald Sampler of USAID, assured him that the administration had already raised this issue with the Sindh government.

Congressman Ami Bera, an Indian-American, asked the administration to urge Pakistan to facilitate Afghan transit trade, particularly from India, to strengthen the Afghan economy.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2016