ISLAMABAD – Just last week, Pakistan's foreign minister was playing down his army's objections to a multibillion dollar U.S. aid bill. Days later, after a session with the army chief, he was back in Washington urging U.S. lawmakers to address the very concerns he had dismissed.
The about-face shows the delicate dance between Pakistan's fragile civilian government and the powerful military, less than two years after the army formally gave up control of the country.
The proposed aid package would provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year over five years to spend mainly on economic and social programs. The overall goal is to alleviate poverty, thus lessening the allure of the Taliban and other militant groups threatening Pakistan and the U.S. war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan's military objects to language that links money for counterterrorism assistance to meeting various conditions. The legislation also requires the U.S. secretary of state to report to Congress every six months on whether Pakistan's government maintains effective control over the military, including its budgets, the chain of command and top promotions.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he would return home from Washington satisfied that the aid package does not hurt his country's sovereignty. He said he had been given U.S. assurances that would "allay the fears of Pakistan."
U.S. lawmakers, however, have no plans to change the bill, which awaits President Barack Obama's signature into law.
Democratic Sen. John Kerry, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters after meeting with Qureshi for the second time in two days that a statement attempting to clarify points in the bill would be entered into the congressional record.
Qureshi called the explanatory statement "historic." But lawmakers frequently put comments and documents — even congratulatory notes for local sports teams — into the congressional record. They do not have the force of law.
The language of that statement may not satisfy critics in Pakistan.
Opposition lawmaker Ayaz Amir said if the proposal's wording does not change — a process that could require sending it back to Congress — it could deepen the rift between the army and the government.
Stephen Fakan, the U.S. consul-general in the southern city of Karachi, stressed the positive impact of the package on Pakistan, where U.S. motives are always viewed in suspicion after years of American support for military dictators.
"It's a sign of friendship. It's turning a page in the histories of both countries," Fakan told reporters in comments televised nationally Wednesday.
Analysts say the army's unusual public statement last week raising "serious concern" over the bill was intended as a message to the Pakistani and U.S. governments about the limits of civilian control in a country that has spent about half its 62-year history under military rule.
The civilian government, in power for a year and a half after nearly a decade of military control, initially defended the bill against opposition lawmakers. The bill is designed to promote civilian rule in Pakistan, and the ruling party promoted that angle in particular.
But not long after the army sided with the opposition critics, the government began pulling its punches.
"It means the army has certain red lines and if you cross those lines, then they come in and they're like, 'Hang on a minute, you can't do this,"' said Cyril Almeida, a local columnist and analyst.
It's not the first time the military has chastened President Asif Ali Zardari's government.
Last year saw the quick reversal of a decision to bring the nation's top intelligence agency, a military unit, under the control of the Interior Ministry. And after November's deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai, Pakistan offered to send the intelligence chief for a visit — but quickly rescinded the offer under apparent army pressure.
Military commanders view Zardari in particular with suspicion, partly because of his reputation for corruption — allegations he denies — and his at times friendly statements about India, a country Pakistan's military is trained to view as enemy No. 1. Zardari is also deeply unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis.
The army has more room to maneuver on the public relations front because of its recent victories against militants, including its overpowering of the Taliban in the northwest Swat Valley. The successes have bolstered a reputation battered under the rule of Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup and quit last year.
Even an audacious and embarrassing weekend assault by militants on the army's headquarters that left 23 people dead seems to have garnered sympathy for the armed forces. Pakistanis held demonstrations in support of the troops.
Raising concerns about the aid bill may have strengthened its hand against the civilian government, but the Pakistani military can go only so far when it comes to an issue that involves the Americans, analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said.
"The military would not like to completely alienate the United States," he said. "They need modern weapons and technology, which obviously comes from the United States."
Pakistan's history is marked by military coups, but the army is trying avoid the impression it wants to seize power again. Even its statement expressing concern about the aid package took care to specify that it was up to Parliament to debate the matter.
Almeida said the current prospect of an overthrow is low because "the politicians aren't unpopular enough to merit a coup at this time." However, he added, "to write off the possibility of a coup in this country — you only do so at your peril."