For days, U.S. lawmakers have berated Pakistan over the discovery of Osama bin Laden at a large, fortified compound outside Islamabad. Some legislators have suggested withholding U.S. aid until Pakistani officials explain how the terrorist leader was able to live under their noses for so long. But while seeking answers, high-ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee describe Pakistan as a vital strategic ally, and say severing ties between Washington and Islamabad would be a costly mistake.
Days after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden, lawmakers continue to ask pointed questions about Pakistan.
"What did Pakistan’s military and intelligence services know? What is appropriate to think they should have known? Who did they think was living behind those 15-foot [4.5-meter] walls? All Americans and many other people are troubled by these questions," said Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
But the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was quick to add the following: "No matter what we learn about the events that preceded the killing of Osama bin Laden, we still have vital national security interests in this region."
The top Republican on the committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, agreed.
"We must admit Pakistan is not an easy partner. But distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous. It would weaken our intelligence-gathering, limit our ability to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, further complicate military operations in Afghanistan, end cooperation on finding terrorists, and eliminate engagement with Islamabad on the security of its nuclear weapons," Lugar said.
Testifying at a committee hearing was South Asia expert Michael Krepon, who spoke in sober tones about a possible rupture between Washington and Islamabad.
"The U.S.-Pakistan relationship could not have survived this long without the presence of vital common interests. But we are now very close to another divorce," Krepon said.
Krepon said allowing such a divorce while continuing to pour massive U.S. resources into Afghanistan makes no sense.
"The future of Pakistan matters a whole lot more than the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan, unlike Afghanistan, is a ‘hinge state’ [linchpin] in the Islamic world. U.S. military and diplomatic investments do not remotely correspond to the relative importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan to vital U.S. national security interests. And some of our policies are increasing stress fractures within Pakistan," Krepon said.
U.S. Institute of Peace South Asia adviser Moeed Yusuf urged pragmatism and realism in U.S. expectations for Pakistan. "Relations with Pakistan will never be ‘good’. But they are still necessary," Yusuf said.
Yusuf said the United States should forge a relationship with Islamabad that looks beyond America’s immediate needs in Afghanistan and the war on terror.
"Withdrawing [U.S.] aid at this moment would be tantamount to giving up on Pakistan. To optimize gains, economic assistance must be tailored to ensure maximum development benefits. There is a need to reconsider use of aid for short-term stabilization objectives. There are things that money cannot buy. And in Pakistan’s case, it is their strategic mindset. India-Pakistan normalization is critical for Pakistan, but it is not our aid that is going to do the trick. It would therefore be best to use America’s economic leverage to ensure better development outcomes. And returns on the counterterrorism front should be linked only to security assistance," Yusuf said.
U.S. military and civilian aid to Pakistan has totaled about $20 billion during the past decade. While agreeing aid should not be terminated, other experts advocated a more stringent certification process before disbursing funds, to ensure U.S. aid reaches its intended recipients and U.S. goals are met.