WASHINGTON: The US Congress, which last week withdrew funds for an F-16 deal to force Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network, is now considering another cut, this time to persuade Islamabad to release Dr Shakil Afridi.

Congressional sources told Dawn that a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers were working on a new measure to use aid cuts to get Dr Afridi out of prison.

Dr Afridi, who assisted US efforts in tracking down Osama bin Laden but is now serving a 23-year prison term in Pakistan, is considered a hero in the United States.

In January 2014, President Barack Obama signed a bill that proposed to withhold $33 million from assistance to Pakistan over Dr Afridi’s detention.

In May that year, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed another measure linking the provision of military aid to Pakistan to Dr Afridi’s release.

Since then, lawmakers have been raising this issue in Congress every time a budget proposal for Pakistan is discussed. Congress has been holding $33 million from its assistance to Pakistan every year since the restriction was first placed.

But congressional sources told Dawn that this year the lawmakers want a more substantial cut to force Pakistan to release Dr Afridi.

“I would not be surprised if Congress made a big portion of this [fiscal 2017] aid contingent on the release of Dr Afridi and his family,” Congressman Brad Sherman said at a joint subcommittee hearing this week.

Congressman Matt Salmon, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, also supported the suggestion. Pakistan needed to know that its treatment of Dr Afridi “is the single biggest impediment to members” wanting to support the country, he said at the hearing.

Another lawmaker, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said it made “little sense to continue to give Pakistan billions of dollars if it’s going to continue to work against our interests”.

And diplomatic observers in Washington point out that US special envoy Richard Olson’s statement at the hearing indicated that the administration may not oppose this move.

“We share your sense of outrage with regard to the plight of Afridi. We continually request updates on his health and his status. Those approaches have not yielded any results but we will continue to raise them,” Ambassador Olson said.

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 State-Foreign Operations request seeks $742 million in foreign assistance for Pakistan, a nearly eight per cent reduction compared to fiscal 2015 levels.

Since 2011, when the United States discovered and killed Osama bin Laden in Islamabad, the US assistance to Pakistan has continued to decrease. But at recent House and Senate hearings, American lawmakers demanded even deeper cuts, saying that they did not understand why the administration was wasting US taxpayers’ money on a country, which often worked against US interests.

Statistics released by the Congressional Research Service show that since 2002, Pakistan has received nearly $33.1 billion in foreign aid, including nearly $3.9 billion in foreign military financing. The State Department has requested $265 million in defence aid for Pakistan in fiscal 2017, the same amount as fiscal 2015.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2016


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