Senior U.S. defense officials expressed serious concern about the situation in Pakistan during a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill Thursday.
“I worry a lot about Pakistan,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, setting the tone for a brief discussion of Pakistan.
Gates said Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the Afghanistan war and the fight against terrorist groups, has huge economic problems and an internal insurgent threat that could spark a war with India.
But he also praised the Pakistani government for shifting more than 140,000 troops to the Afghanistan border and for clearing out some former insurgent strongholds.
“It is a mixed picture., Gates said. "And it is something we just need to keep working at.”
U.S. officials say they want Pakistan to do more, and particularly to go into areas along its western border where Afghan insurgents still maintain safe havens.
Sitting beside Secretary Gates at the hearing, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he is more optimistic than he has ever been about the actions of Pakistan’s military. But as one of the U.S. government’s key officials dealing with Pakistan, Admiral Mullen expressed serious concern about other aspects of the country’s situation.
“On the political side, the economic side, at least from my perspective, it looks worse than it has in a long time," Mullen said. "The vector is going in the wrong direction overall for the country. We are very unpopular there. You have seen that. It gets highlighted in each crisis.”
Admiral Mullen has made more than 20 visits to Pakistan since he took office three and a half years ago.
“It is where lots of terrorist organizations head, not just al-Qaida," he said. "They are more combined in their efforts than they have ever been. So I do think we have to continue to work at it. But I am as concerned as I have ever been.”
Admiral Mullen also noted that the United States is very unpopular in Pakistan.
He said a huge U.S. military aid effort after last year’s floods improved the situation a bit, but those gains have been erased by the current controversy over the status of a State Department employee arrested in Pakistan after a shooting incident. The United States says the man has diplomatic immunity, but Pakistani officials say a local court must decide, and public opinion has turned sharply against the man and against the U.S. government.
Gates and Mullen were testifying in support of President Barack Obama’s proposed 2012 defense budget.
But senators asked about a variety of the challenges facing United States around the world, from Pakistan to China to Afghanistan and Iraq, among others.