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Congress preparing options to cut Pakistani aid

Congress is up in arms over the Pakistan government’s possible involvement in the sheltering of Osama bin Laden, and lawmakers are readying a long list of ways to place pressure on Pakistan until it gets answers. Most of the sticks being contemplated on Capitol Hill involve the cutting of foreign aid. And while there likely ...

Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Congress is up in arms over the Pakistan government’s possible involvement in the sheltering of Osama bin Laden, and lawmakers are readying a long list of ways to place pressure on Pakistan until it gets answers.

Most of the sticks being contemplated on Capitol Hill involve the cutting of foreign aid. And while there likely will not be one overarching bill to cut off all aid to Pakistan, lawmakers and staffs are finalizing plans to reduce or restrict assistance. And unfortunately for Pakistan, this debate will take place within the larger context of a budget debate that includes an emphasis on cutting foreign aid.

The issue of how to deal with Pakistan divides both parties and both chambers. Traditional conservative/liberal distinctions do not apply, and lawmakers are bringing their long-held skepticism of Pakistani aid into the debate. In each party, there are roughly two camps — those who want to withhold or at least reduce aid now, and those who want to wait to see if information is forthcoming that Pakistani officials were actually involved in supporting bin Laden’s efforts to evade capture.

In the Senate, two top Democrats who control the writing of key legislation that allocates Pakistani aid have been particularly critical: Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). They are joined by House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), who issued a blistering statement on Thursday criticizing the administration’s handling of the military assistance to Pakistan.

"Under the current legislative scheme, I don’t think our military assistance is serving the interests we are intending it to serve," Berman said in a Thursday interview with The Cable. "What I’m asking the administration to do is focus on getting Pakistan to change its approach and go after extremist groups. If they’re not successful, we should reconsider giving this money."

Berman was critical of the administration’s decision to certify that Pakistan "demonstrated a sustained commitment towards combating terrorism," a requirement under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill passed last year, which is worth $7.5 billion over five years.

He also argued that a huge fund to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism operations, known as the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF), has not been effective. That fund was transferred to the State Department last year, but the administration decided to give it back to the Pentagon in the fiscal 2011 budget deal, in order to trim State’s overall budget number.

That places it back under the jurisdiction of Levin’s committee, which is starting work on its fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill now. And PCCF is one of many ways that lawmakers are preparing to use aid funding as leverage over Pakistan.

"There are plenty of ways to hold the funds up. There needs to be a real form of tough love," said one senior Democratic aide said. "We’re not trying to hamstring the administration, we’re trying to give them leverage with the Pakistanis."

Berman’s focus on the military aid is shared by other top Democrats, including Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), who sits on both the defense and foreign ops appropriations subcommittees.

"We should cut off the military aid but not the economic development aid," Moran told The Cable Thursday. "We should insist the aid be used for education and economic development, but not for subsidizing the military presence on the border with India, which is what its being used for now."

Leahy is among those who never believed that the economic aid to Pakistan was being spent in an effective way, or with proper planning and oversight. His staff crafts the Senate’s funding bill for Pakistani aid, but that bill won’t surface for months, because all appropriations bills are on hold due to the ongoing budget debate.

The fiscal 2011 foreign aid allocations still have not been finalized, giving appropriators another avenue to trim the money going from U.S. taxpayers to Pakistan. The budget deal struck to keep the government running last month set overall allocations, but didn’t get into the details of how the aid would be disbursed.

"We have to work with a smaller number overall for foreign aid, so that invariably will affect amounts for Pakistan," said one Senate appropriations staffer.

Several congressional aides told The Cable that other options include slowing the transfer of Kerry-Lugar money to Pakistani coffers, enforcing other provisions in the law that require the administration to consider Pakistan’s progress on issues like corruption and human rights, or adding new legislative conditions on Pakistan aid.

There is already one bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), that would require all aid be frozen until the Pakistani government proves it was not complicit in hiding bin Laden. But that bill is not likely to see the light of day on the House floor and several aides said it didn’t make sense.

"How do you prove a negative? It’s just ridiculous," one Republican House aide said.

But there are other ways to condition aid short of making Pakistan prove its innocence. Congress could require the administration to certify that Pakistan is cooperating with the bin Laden investigation. Or Congress could add conditions that have nothing to do with bin Laden, such as requiring Pakistan to raise its famously low tax rate for the rich before the United States provides any more direct budget support.

On the other side of the debate, an uneasy alliance of senior national security-focused lawmakers are stressing the importance of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and warning that abandoning Pakistan could have dangerous long term effects, as it did after the U.S. cut off aid in 1990.

That group includes Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops ranking Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC). On the House side, both heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), are urging a go-slow approach, although Granger has said she wants to examine cash payments to the Pakistani civilian government, known as "direct budget support."

Even House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) — who has pledged to cut aid to countries not cooperating with the United States — is urging caution.

"They are an important partner. We would be jeopardizing our security if we cut off aid," Ros-Lehtinen told the Washington Post.

As more information in the bin Laden back story emerges and lawmakers get their ducks in a row, what’s certain is that each and every aspect of aid to Pakistan is going to be scrutinized carefully.

"This is a delicate and balanced assessment that we have to carry out," said a senior GOP House aide. "There are enormous pressures on Congress to do something and everyone is in agreement that the relationship has to be assessed. The difficulty is finding what levers are most effective."

What is likely to happen in the end? If the Obama administration argues aggressively that the money is needed on national security grounds, they are likely to get their way.

"If the president, Gates, Clinton, and Panetta all stand up publicly and say we really need the aid, they’ll probably get the aid," said one GOP senate staffer. "The Pakistani accounts may get a haircut, but they won’t go down to zero."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin