WASHINGTON: The US State Department has informed Congress that it wants to retain the flexibility that foreign assistance provides, to do business with Pakistan.

“It is critical that the State Department maintains the flexibility to provide assistance for Pakistan that advances US interests,” said a department official when asked how the recent congressional restrictions could affect US-Pakistan relations.

“We seek aid for Pakistan because it’s in our interests; it advances our broader security interests, and meets critical humanitarian and development needs,” the official told Dawn.

The official pointed out that the State Department’s assistance request for fiscal 2017 was down by over 60 per cent from the high point earlier in the decade (2010).

“We think the funding level requested is appropriate and in our interest,” he added.

The US Congress recently stopped the administration from using its foreign military financing (FMF) facility to enable Pakistan to buy eight F-16s. Also, a congressional panel endorsed a draft bill to block $450 million in aid to Pakistan for failing to take action against the Haqqani network.

The restrictions have strained relations between the United States and Pakistan that were getting back to normal after years of tensions. The recent developments also show that Pakistan has not won back the friends it has lost on Capitol Hill since 2011.

Pakistan reacted to the congressional restrictions by pledging to buy aircraft from other sources, apparently China, and rejected the claim that it was allowing militant groups to use its territory for carrying out attacks in Afghanistan.

Policy makers in Washington disagree with Congress’s approach and fear that it would not achieve the desired result of persuading Pakistan to be more cooperative in the war against terrorists.

“As a general matter, the Department of State would oppose conditions on assistance that would limit the president and secretary of state’s ability to provide assistance in the best interests of the United States,” said the State Department official.

The official noted that while Congress had not sought to block the sale, key members had made it clear that they objected to using FMF to support the sale.

“Given the Congressional objections, we have told the Pakistanis that they should put forward national funds for the purchase,” the official said.

When asked what the State Department was doing to deal with the situation caused by the congressional restrictions, he said: “I would prefer to keep the details of our conversations with the Hill and Pakistan on this issue private.”

But “we support the sale, and we will continue to work with Congress. However, we have told the Pakistanis that they should put forward national funds for the purchase, given Congressional objections,” he added.

The official also backed Pakistan’s claim that it needed the F-16s to fight militants and not to use them against India, as some lawmakers suggested in congressional debates.

“The administration continues to support the proposed sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan to assist Pakistan’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations,” he said.

“Pakistan’s current F-16s have supported these operations to date. These operations reduce the ability of certain militants to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven for terrorism and a base of support for the insurgency in Afghanistan,” he added.

The official pointed out that such operations were “in the interests of Pakistan, the United States, Nato and in the interest of the region more broadly”.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2016