Lawmakers re-evaluate financial support for Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Congress is seriously weighing the amount of its aid package to Pakistan as lawmakers on Tuesday demanded to know more about what Islamabad officials knew about Osama bin Laden's secret compound.

There was widespread bipartisan agreement that aid to Pakistan, which last fiscal year included $2.2 billion in military assistance, should be "re-evaluated," as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., put it.

"It needs to be looked into," added House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

They and others stopped short of calling for an aid cutoff, which appeared unlikely. As Graham said, "It is better to engage with imperfect people."

Lawmakers were almost uniformly upset, skeptical — and puzzled _over what Pakistani officials knew about bin Laden's compound, which was only about 35 miles from Islamabad as the crow flies, and about a 75-mile drive. Built in 2005, the outsize fortresslike structure sat less than a mile from Pakistan's top military school in a neighborhood populated with retired army officers. If Pakistani officials knew bin Laden was there, they never told their U.S. allies, and if they didn't know, that raises questions about their competence.

Despite such doubts, some lawmakers defended Pakistan.

"The fact is that even while all of this has been going on, they've allowed us to pursue our drone program," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, D-Mass., referring to the use of CIA drone aircraft to fire missiles at suspected terrorists in Pakistan, which is highly controversial there.

"We've taken out 16 al Qaida leaders because of that. The fact that we were able to keep this place under observation for two years or more happened with their cooperation. The ability to track the couriers happened with their cooperation," Kerry said.

Still, lawmakers want answers. That process will begin in earnest Wednesday, when the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees question CIA Director Leon Panetta and other top officials familiar with Sunday's mission that resulted in the death of bin Laden.

Among the questions Graham wants to ask Panetta is "Do you believe killing bin Laden is an excuse to withdraw from Afghanistan faster? Should we sever our ties with Pakistan because of, obviously, some double dealing?"

But they know they have to proceed carefully.

"I think we have to know whether they knew," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., referring to Pakistani officials. "If they didn't know, why didn't they know? Was this just benign indifference, or indifference with a motive?"

However, evaluating Pakistan's role vis-a-vis bin Laden, and the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations, is complicated, Feinstein and others agreed.

"Pakistan, you can't trust 'em and you can't abandon 'em. That's just where we're at in Pakistan," Graham said. "It's not in our national security interests to let this one event destroy this difficult partnership but a partnership nonetheless. Pakistan is a state hanging by a thread, and I don't want to cut the last thread."

The White House voiced similar views. Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was "complicated but important" and that "we look forward to cooperating into the future." He said the U.S. did need to find out more about the support network that allowed bin Laden to hide there, but cautioned that "you have be careful about tarring everyone either in the country or the government."

Asked about Graham's comments, Carney said he didn't think it was a matter of trust, but more a matter of shared interests.

Still, pressure is growing in Congress to send a message of anger to Pakistan.

Cutting off aid might be one of the easiest ways to do that; lawmakers could shave just enough to send a message while not damaging the relationship. And they could argue that at a time when they're desperately seeking ways to cut the federal budget, aid packages should be re-evaluated anyway.

"We're re-evaluating every part of the budget," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "That's always a healthy thing to do."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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