Lawmakers call for tougher restrictions on aid to Pakistan

The call on Capitol Hill for tougher restrictions on aid to Pakistan intensified Thursday, with lawmakers from both political parties saying the time is ripe for reining in the U.S.’s inconstant ally.

Congress could try to accomplish this by placing new stipulations on the billions of dollars in annual aid Washington sends to Islamabad in return for Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan war.

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The indignation of lawmakers was sparked by the revelation that Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. Navy SEALs last weekend, was holed up in a compound just 40 miles from Pakistan’s capital city — and in a neighborhood populated with Pakistani security officials.

The stunning disclosure reminded Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) of a comment an analyst made during a recent trip to Afghanistan: When it comes to assisting U.S. officials, “Pakistan is both firefighter and arsonist.”

“The United States has provided Pakistan almost $20 billion in civilian and military assistance and military reimbursements since 2001,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“However, according to recent documents, including the president’s April Afghanistan-Pakistan metrics report, certain elements of the Pakistani defense and intelligence establishments continue to provide direct and indirect support to groups that directly threaten the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own stability,” Berman wrote. “This ongoing support makes sustainable military progress in Afghanistan virtually impossible.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called the moment “an opportunity” to change how Washington doles out aid to Pakistan, calling for Congress and the Obama administration to forge “a very different way.” 

“We’ve known for some time” that Pakistani officials have sometimes helped the anti-Taliban and -al Qaeda fight, and other times been less than honest with U.S. and Afghanistan officials, Corker said. 

A new approach is needed because the disclosure that bin Laden was hiding there shows Pakistani officials “were in cahoots or were incompetent,” Corker said.

The White House is proposing to send $3 billion in civilian and military aid to Pakistan in 2012 alone.

Congress should review and strengthen the stipulations it places on aid to Pakistan, House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told The Hill.

"We should be looking at how we can make Pakistan a more active partner versus groups that threaten us and them," Thornberry said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called the bin Laden situation a possible “chance for a restart” with Pakistan, urging that conditions on future assistance be “strengthened.”

What’s more, U.S. officials “have to be willing to cut off or suspend” aid, if Pakistan’s actions warrant such moves, Cardin said.

Altering its methods of giving assistance to its sometimes-reluctant ally might prove tricky.

Doing so would likely agitate a key partner in the Afghanistan conflict at a time when Pentagon and administration officials say they are seeing “tangible progress” there.

Washington has for nearly a decade sent funding and other aid to Islamabad in return for assistance targeting terrorist groups and anti-U.S. fighters who use the rugged mountain region along the Afghan/Pakistani border as a safe haven from American and coalition forces.

For that reason, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) this week called America’s relationship “maybe the most complicated” of any security partnership it maintains.

Pentagon officials, senior lawmakers and experts stress Pakistan has taken some actions, such as allowing U.S. drone strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban targets within its borders, to assist Washington’s war efforts.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday that “separating ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and dangerous,” noting it would “complicate military operations in Afghanistan.” He called Pakistan “a strategically vital country which we must engage.”

The panel’s chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), noted Pakistan’s allowance of the drone strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda targets, and said the nation provides key logistical and intelligence support to the U.S.-led Afghan conflict.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who was the top Marine in Afghanistan and commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force until last month, gives Pakistani military officials high marks.

During his deployment, whenever he and his Marines in southwest Afghanistan interacted with Pakistani military leaders, “they were … professional and supportive of what we were trying to do,” Mills told reporters during a breakfast in Washington.

Several lawmakers said the White House and Congress should seize this new leverage because American officials have suspected for years that Pakistani officials were misusing Washington’s funds.

The revelation of bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair “puts a big spotlight on this,” Cardin said.

On Wednesday, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) introduced a measure that would slash Pakistani aid unless the State Department can verify the Pakistani government was not knowingly hosting the terrorist kingpin. 

“It seems like Pakistan might be playing both sides,” Poe said, “and they have a lot of explaining to do.”