Congress turns against Pakistan

May 4, 2011 Issues: Counterterrorism

By: Manu Raju and Jake Sherman
Politico
May 3, 2011

Congress expressed fury at Pakistan Tuesday for its role in   housing Osama bin Laden   for the past several years, as a wide range of powerful lawmakers are   raising new questions   about the billions in foreign aid the United States has spent propping up what many believe is an unreliable ally.

Lawmakers from both parties are weighing whether to put limitations on Pakistani aid, either through new accountability measures, tougher oversight – or even withholding portions of the funding if Pakistan fails to divulge how bin Laden was able to live in a huge compound just outside the country’s capital of Islamabad.

And while a complete cut off of funding seems highly unlikely, it’s clear that Pakistan is losing support on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers expressed disbelief at the Pakistani government’s contention that officials were unaware of bin Laden’s presence.

For now, it seems the United States and Pakistan will be stuck with an uncomfortable relationship, since many worry that cutting off aid could turn the critical ally towards the terrorist elements that reside in the nuclear-armed nation.

“You can’t trust them, and you can’t abandon them,” said   Sen. Lindsey Graham   (R-S.C.), top Republican on a Senate subcommittee responsible for doling out foreign aid. “One thing that’s just not an option to me is to sever ties – that to me is a formula for a failed state.”

The dilemma facing lawmakers is stark. At a time of intense budget-cutting fervor, voters often say that foreign aid should be sacrificed before Congress cuts popular domestic programs – and with suspicions lingering over Pakistan’s role in the bin Laden episode, the pressure to slice funds for the country is only growing. But cutting aid to Pakistan creates its own risks and could further roil tensions with the nation at a crucial time in the United States’ 10-year war against terrorism.

“We’re broke,” Graham acknowledged. “It’s hard to go back to South Carolina and say, ‘Give aid to Pakistan.’”

Rep. Jerry Lewis, a veteran California Republican who sits on the panel that funds foreign operations, stood up in a closed GOP conference meeting Monday to urge caution against heated rhetoric against Pakistan, warning that doing so has serious implications, people familiar with the meeting said.

“You probably got some bad apples in there, I’m sure, and you got some good people,” said Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican long involved in Pakistani affairs. “And bin Laden being that close to a military installation really is troubling, but you have to look at the overall picture.”

Speaking to reporters after a party lunch, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that Pakistan has been a partner fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda, having lost thousands of troops fighting alongside the United States.

“Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have oversight and I’m willing to do that,” Reid said Tuesday. “But we will have federal assistance.”

House Republican leaders, who are typically eager to call for cuts, aren’t yet taking a hard stand on aid to Pakistan. Asked directly, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hedged, saying “we need to understand exactly what it is the Pakistanis did and didn’t know as far as the situation that unfolded this weekend, and the years leading up to that.”

Speaker John Boehner also appeared to support aid to Pakistan. The Associated Press reported that the speaker thinks it’s premature to talk about stopping shipping money to Pakistan, and the two countries should have an "eyeball to eyeball conversation about where this relationship is going."

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) added that Congress shouldn’t have a “knee-jerk reaction” before the extent of the Pakistani’s involvement is known in the housing of bin Laden.

In a statement to POLITICO, Foreign Affairs Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said it’s “difficult to imagine that some elements of the Pakistani government didn’t have some idea of what was going on at compound Bin Laden.”

“But we need Pakistan’s cooperation and assistance on a range of critical efforts,” she said. “The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is far from perfect, but it is important. “

President Barack Obama has requested $3 billion for Pakistan next year, adding to the roughly $13 billion the U.S. gave the country over the last decade, making it one of the leading recipients of U.S. dollars. About $6 billion has been spent on development and humanitarian aid – and about $4.4 billion for security programs between 2001 and 2010. In September 2009, Congress authorized an additional $1.5 billion to be spent annually on non-military aid, with a string of reporting and accountability requirements that spurred major pushback from Pakistani leaders.

“There are already are conditions and there could be more, but the fact is that Pakistan is a situation which none of us are happy with but we have to improve it rather than abandon it,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a member of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said future funding for Pakistan should be hinged on bolstering education in its poor school system.

"I thought that aid has been misplaced," he said in an interview. "We just give them money - who knows where it goes?"

Still, some tea-party backed freshman like Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have joined hands with some liberals who want to choke off funding.

“I don’t think we can borrow money from China and give it to anybody; I don’t think that makes any sense,” Paul told POLITICO.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said the U.S.-Pakistani “relationship has always been in my view tentative.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign spending, said he has “grave concerns about Pakistan and I will be reviewing it.” But he declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) is introducing legislation that would say the country gets no more foreign aid until the U.S. knows whether Pakistan was involved in giving sanctuary to bin Laden – the State Department would have to render a judgment to Congress.

“My position is we need to know where Pakistan stands in the world of terror,” Poe said in an interview.

Pakistan, however, is taking to Capitol Hill, influential opinion pages and television to state its case.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari wrote that bin Laden “was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be, but now he is gone.”

“Although the events of Sunday were not a joint operation, a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden as a continuing threat to the civilized world,” Zardari wrote in the piece, entitled “Pakistan did its part.”

At a meeting with House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), a top Pakistani embassy official told the Republican that his country is a close ally to the United States. But King said “they’re at a crossroads” with the United States.

“You can’t be coming to Congress and asking for $3 billion after what happened and expect to get it without serious, serious questions being asked and the relationship being reanalyzed,” King said in an interview. Several lawmakers in both parties said they were seeking meetings with embassy officials.

Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, the chairman of a Foreign Affairs committee that focuses on the Middle East and South Asia, said the United States needs to “reconsider and reevaluate our policy toward Pakistan, and that includes the issue of funding.”