U.S. Role in Pakistan and Afghanistan Under Fire in Congress

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar
Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lawmakers from both parties questioned the need to sacrifice American lives and provide U.S. aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan following the death of Osama bin Laden.

As President Barack Obama prepares to unveil by July his plan for drawing down forces in Afghanistan, Republicans challenged the need to continue the mission at all, while Democrats sought a clearer sense of the administration’s goals.

“With al-Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints,” said Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the House, California Representative Jackie Speier, the leading Democrat on the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, described doubts about Pakistan as “the elephant in the room.” The Republican chairman of that panel, Pennsylvania Representative Patrick Meehan, expressed frustration with Pakistan’s unknown role, given bin Laden’s presence just outside Islamabad. Was Pakistan driven by “divided loyalty, complicity, incompetence?” Meehan wondered out loud.

Was Pakistan Complicit?

Those questions were among many raised in Congress as the world absorbed the news of bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces. The event has created what Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called “a seminal moment” for U.S. foreign policy and security interests.

Pakistan intends to address any allegations or shortfalls on its part, said Husain Haqqani, the country’s ambassador to Washington. The most common questions that have been raised are whether Pakistan was complicit in protecting bin Laden, was over-confident in its own abilities, or overlooked evidence of his presence, he said.

“We totally reject the notion of complicity,” Haqqani said in an interview yesterday. “As far as over-confidence or lack of competence, these are matters for us to examine ourselves.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the fact that bin Laden had been living close to a military academy in the city of Abbottabad “was an intelligence failure, but not just on Pakistan’s part.” Gilani, who spoke to reporters today in Paris, said it was time to “move on” from the death of the al-Qaeda leader.

Taliban Role

Kerry said lawmakers and officials “have to ask at every turn if our strategy in Afghanistan is sustainable.” The U.S. has to discuss “with our partners about how this war ends, what an acceptable end-state looks like, and what steps we need to take to get there.” A key question, Kerry said, is to what degree the Taliban should be part of that end-state.

The U.S. will spend $120 billion in Afghanistan this fiscal year, Kerry said. Along with Lugar, Kerry helped to write legislation, signed by Obama in October 2009, that directs $1.5 billion in non-military aid annually to Pakistan. In fiscal year 2010, total U.S. aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan amounted to $4.3 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research group that serves lawmakers.

The administration continues to defend that investment and its close cooperation with Pakistan, even as officials say the presence of the world’s most wanted man in a military hub just 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, raises serious questions.

Support System

Continued cooperation with Pakistan is “in Pakistan’s long-term interest and our long term security interests,” Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, said yesterday. “This has paid dividends and continues to pay dividends.”

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said U.S. officials are looking at what kind of support system bin Laden had at his Abbottabad compound.

Marc Grossman, the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met yesterday with Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Salman Bashir. After the visit, which had been scheduled before the commando raid, Grossman described bin Laden’s killing as a “shared achievement” and stressed that “one thing that is so clear” is that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. share a commitment to fighting extremism.

Across Capitol Hill, lawmakers expressed their doubts about the value of that cooperation, particularly with Pakistan.

‘Down to Trust’

“It really comes down to trust,” California’s Speier said at a hearing that examined the threat Pakistan poses to the U.S. She estimated that in the last decade, the U.S. has funneled close to $20 billion to Pakistan “and we had to go in ourselves to take out bin Laden.”

Pakistan’s intelligence services, suspected by many in the U.S. of harboring or protecting militants who cross the border to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan, are “rogue, at the very least,” she said.

Seth Jones, a senior political scientist in the Arlington, Virginia, office of the RAND Corporation, a global research and policy organization, told Speier and other lawmakers that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will never build trust until both sides admit to mistakes.

“Pakistan has to admit, at least privately, that it has supported some militant groups,” said Jones, who has spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that if the U.S. finds out Pakistan had knowledge of bin Laden’s hideout and was doing “nothing about it,” it would have to re-examine its options.

‘Greater Risk’

Kerry defended aid to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, comparing the relationship to “trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

“We just got Osama bin Laden. One of the reasons we got him is because we had intelligence people there and able to do their work,” he told reporters. “If we lose that, we put America at greater risk.”

The alternative could be “a radical Islamic government having possession of nuclear weapons and running Pakistan,” said Kerry.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee, summed up the U.S. dilemma with Pakistan. “You can’t trust ‘em and you can’t abandon ‘em,” he told reporters. “That’s just where we’re at.”

“It is not in our national security interests to let this one event destroy what is a difficult partnership, but a partnership nonetheless,” Graham said. Pakistan is a state “hanging by a thread,” he added, “and I don’t want to cut the last thread.”

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