Sen. Rand Paul holding up ambassador to Pakistan over doctor's arrest

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is holding up President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Pakistan to send Islamabad a message about the arrest of a doctor who helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden, The Hill has learned.

Paul is one of Shakil Afridi's staunchest defenders in Congress and has doggedly pursued a vote on a bill that would strip all U.S. aid to Pakistan unless the doctor is released from prison.

Some warn the hold on the nomination of Richard Olson, who is now serving at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, could backfire by further damaging America’s strained relations in a strategically vital part of the world.

“Democrats and Republicans always say that the key to Afghanistan is securing cooperation with Pakistan,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told The Hill in a statement when asked about the hold. “That's reason enough to have a top notch diplomat in place in Islamabad. This is a complicated relationship that demands constant attention.”

Paul's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Relations between the United States and Pakistan seemed to improve slightly last month after Pakistan reopened NATO supply routes to Afghanistan that had been closed since U.S. troops accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November. 

But tension between the countries remains high. It was cited as one of the factors that contributed to former Ambassador Cameron Munter's departure last month after less than two years in the post.

The State Department has expressed confidence in the current acting ambassador, Richard Hoagland, the deputy chief of mission who in the past has served as ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

“President Obama nominated Richard Olson to serve as ambassador to Pakistan because he has a unique combination of experience, skill, and wisdom to successfully represent our nation in Islamabad. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton remain strong supporters of his nomination,” a State Department official told The Hill.

“While we are disappointed that Ambassador Olson was not confirmed on Thursday, we are working closely with the Senate to ensure a swift and smooth confirmation process and hope Ambassador Olson will assume this critical post soon.”

Kerry, however, said the United States urgently needs a full ambassador in such a critical role.

“We've been working day and night with Pakistan to build a stable economy and strengthen our engagement with its people and after such a tumultuous year this is exactly the wrong time to leave such an important post vacant. I can’t think of a good reason for doing so,” he said. “We recognized the importance of this position and expedited it out of committee and I urge the Senate to move this nomination through as quickly as possible when we return from the recess.”

Kerry’s committee this week discharged the nominations of Olson and James Cunningham, Obama's choice to be ambassador to Afghanistan, without a formal vote. The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to approve Cunningham and nine other nominees.

In a floor speech last week, Paul said he would delay pressing for his Pakistan aid bill until after an appeals court rules on Afridi's case on Aug. 30.

“I have a bill and I have the votes necessary to demand a vote in the Senate,” he said. “No matter what the leadership wants, we will have a vote on ending all of Pakistan’s aid, if this political prisoner, Dr. Shakil Afridi, is not released.”

Afridi helped gather the DNA of bin Laden family members under the guise of a hepatitis B vaccination program, U.S. officials have said. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison for “high treason” by a tribal court in May, prompting outrage on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) at the time called it “decisive proof Pakistan sees itself as being at war with us.” And Senate appropriators voted unanimously to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million, $1 million for every year of his sentence, but just a fraction of the $800 million in foreign aid set aside for Pakistan next fiscal year.

The Obama administration has also called for Afridi's release, albeit in more muted terms.

“We continue to see no basis for Dr. Afridi to be held,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in May. “We have regularly taken up this matter with Pakistan. I would expect we will continue to.”

Senators left for their five-week summer break Thursday evening but did not formally recess, meaning they'll hold pro-forma sessions every few days. As a result, Olson could conceivably be confirmed this summer if no one objects.