Senators' advice to administration: Get tough in Pakistan talks

U.S. officials should tell Pakistani leaders that without concrete assurances they will drop their “double game” with Washington, the U.S. is prepared to end economic and military aid, senators said Tuesday.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said Americans are more frustrated than ever with Pakistan, a nation that gets billions annually in economic and military assistance from Washington.

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Other senators on the committee agreed.

“I have difficulty explaining to people back in Idaho why we’re spending [billions of dollars] in a country where they don’t like us,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho).

Popular support for the U.S. in Pakistan remains low — especially after an American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And those low numbers are despite gestures beyond financial aid, such as helping with reconstruction efforts after devastating floods there.

“It is a hard sell to American people,” Risch said. “I’m getting tired of … shoveling money in there and the people flat don’t like us.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he “has doubts” about Pakistan’s intentions following the bin Laden raid and about the prospects that leaders in Islamabad will change their behavior. After bin Laden was discovered hiding in Abbottabad, a city about 30 miles from the capitol, several lawmakers expressed skepticism on how Pakistani officials could not have known of his presence in their country. They have demanded an explanation.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he is “deeply concerned by a country that plays a double game” with the United States.

The senators made clear they want the Obama administration to be tough in high-level talks with Pakistani officials. Those talks could begin this week.

One way lawmakers say the U.S. can coax Pakistan to get more aggressive in assisting U.S. and Afghanistan forces is by threatening to reduce or shut off the economic and military aid that has flowed from Washington to Islamabad since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The U.S. has sent Pakistan about $20 billion in various kinds of aid since then and have gotten mixed support in the fight against al Qaeda and its Taliban partners.

Retired Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser until late 2010, agreed with the lawmakers that U.S. officials must press their Pakistani counterparts for hard assurances that they are ready to stop playing both sides.

“It is hard to explain,” Jones told Risch. “What happens in next few weeks is going to be extremely [important] in terms of consequences.”

During the upcoming talks, the retired Marine Corps four-star general bluntly said “most of onus is on Pakistan and how they decide to take a logical path on bilateral issues with us and how they present themselves to the world.”

Pakistani officials have to decide once and for all whether theirs will be “a state where they tolerate terrorists on their soil as matter of their foreign policy?” Jones said. If Pakistani officials “change that,” it might be easier for lawmakers like Risch to explain to their constituents why Washington sends billions each year to that nation.

But, the former national security adviser said, “there must be a change.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said “most of us [in Congress] want to call timeout on aid” and move to a more “transactional relationship.”

But Robert Lamb, a former Pentagon strategist now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week he is skeptical that placing tough restrictions on the aid would work.

“The Pakistanis view the U.S. as a transactional people. Putting a bunch of stipulations on money you’re giving another party is like prostitution,” Lamb said. “And anyone who is treated like a prostitute generally does not like it.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) just returned from Islamabad, where he met multiple times with top Pakistani officials.

He described his talks as candid, saying, “Everything was on the table.”

During the coming talks, “we have to know it’s not a one-way street,” Kerry said. Yet, Obama administration officials and lawmakers must understand “there are things that will be incumbent on us to do” as part of any new strategic alliance with Pakistan, he added.

“Aid alone is not the only ballgame,” Kerry said. “They have strategic interests, and we’re going to have to work those strategic interests.”

One of the issues U.S. officials will have to work on during the summit, which will culminate with a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June, is to assure that Washington wants a long-term partnership.

That’s because, Jones said, the Pakistanis believe the U.S. “is not interested” in anything beyond its planned 2014 Afghanistan withdrawal date.

A date for Clinton’s visit has not yet been set.

“She’ll go when she can have those discussions in the right context and with the right preparation,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday, according to media reports.