Vermont delegation skeptical of Pakistan
NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON — Doubts about Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism have pervaded Congress for some time. But the hideout where U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday — a spacious, heavily secured compound in a Pakistani city enveloped by military installations — has quickly intensified questions in Washington about whether the spigot of aid to Pakistan should be cutoff.
U.S. forces had long searched for bin Laden, the most notorious terrorist in the world and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, in a remote territory that straddles the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had been largely assumed, by the American public at least, that bin Laden was hiding out in some desolate, isolated cave in the mountainous region.
As it turned out, he and several family members inhabited the compound in plain sight of the Pakistani military and intelligence service. The proximity to military installations and personnel has triggered questions about what Pakistani officials knew, or what they should have known.
“The fact that bin Laden was located in a mansion almost adjoining a military installation in a large city in Pakistan maybe suggests to us that our friends in that country have not been as vigorous as they have suggested in pursuing him and terrorism in general,” said Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly thanked Pakistan for its intelligence help in the U.S. mission that resulted in bin Laden’s death. But Pakistani officials had no prior knowledge of the mission and were told only after U.S. forces had departed the country, a symbol of the complex and strained relationship.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an icy statement Tuesday expressing “its deep concerns and reservations on the manner in which the government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorization from the government of Pakistan.” The “event shall not serve as future precedent for any state, including the US,” the statement reads.
Senior Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said he agrees with President Barack Obama’s decision to keep Pakistani officials in the dark “even through we’re overflying their airspace and going into their country to carry out a military operation.”
He said the U.S. has had “a difficult relationship with Pakistan for a long, long, time.” As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, Leahy oversees about $1.8 billion in aid to Pakistan. There are more questions now about those funds, he said, and whether they should continue to flow.
“I’m well enough aware of the complex relationship we have, but I’ve already been sending signals to them, and to the administration, to not expect an automatic renewal of their aid. We’re going to review every aspect of it before anything is done. What will come from that review, I’m not going to prejudge it,” Leahy said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers, including Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also indicated Tuesday that aid to Pakistan could be cut.
Leahy said more answers are needed, though, before any determination can be made.
“After my last trip there I expressed concerns about it. I’ve expressed concern about it to the administration, the Secretary of State and others, and before we do the next budget I intend to get a lot more answers,” Leahy said. “What we just saw raises a real, real concern.”
Leahy said he and other lawmakers were set to meet with CIA Director Leon Panetta Tuesday evening to obtain more details about the mission and how it transpired.
A Leahy aide said Tuesday that the senator is focused on “not shooting first and aiming later.”
Much of the aid flowing into Pakistan that is overseen by Leahy’s Appropriations subcommittee involves economic development and humanitarian work, including children’s education and vaccination programs, and goes to non-governmental organizations. About $300 million in defense aid supports counter-terrorism efforts as part of a long-standing military assistance relationship, according to a subcommittee aide.
Another counter insurgency fund controlled by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense provides an additional $1 billion in military funding to Pakistan, according to the subcommittee aide. Leahy is a senior member of that group.
Pakistan received about $1.4 billion in total defense aid in fiscal year 2010 through the regular budget process.
Meanwhile, Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch said he shares the concern over Pakistan as a committed ally. “Count me among the skeptics,” he said in a telephone interview.
“What we know is that Pakistan is with us when it’s convenient, and they turn a blind eye when it’s convenient for them. We don’t have a reliable partner but we have a need since so many of the forces that are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan flee into Pakistan,” he said.
Welch said he is among the members of Congress asking questions about the aid provided to Pakistan. The fact that bin Laden was “living next to their equivalent of West Point” simply “intensifies these questions.”
Welch said he would like see conditions placed on aid to Pakistan to “make certain that we get a level of cooperation and that we weren’t giving something and getting nothing.”
The dilemma, Welch said, is that the U.S. is reliant on Pakistan’s tepid support for the vast border region occupied by Taliban fighters.
“We definitely are in a predicament because there is a flow of fighters that go across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but none of us should have any illusion that the aid is buying peace and cooperation,” Welch said.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org