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US lawmakers threaten to suspend aid

May 03, 2011

Senator John McCain, however, advised the US not to sever ties with Islamabad.—Reuters photo

WASHINGTON: Senior US Congressional leaders urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to reconsider America’s relationship with Pakistan and also threatened to suspend $1.3 billion of annual aid to the country if it’s established that Pakistani intelligence officials helped lodge Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

But at least one lawmaker — Senator John McCain — advised the US not to sever ties with Islamabad. “To try to assist them and try to move towards democracy in my view is a very difficult … path but extremely (necessary). The other options are not really viable. For a ten-year period we cut off relations with Pakistan, things got worse. And so to do that obviously would not be the answer,” said the senior Republican senator who was also his party’s presidential candidate in 2008.

Others disagreed. “Our government is in fiscal distress; to make contributions to a country that isn’t going to be fully supportive is a problem for many. I want to think this out, talking to other members,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism,” said Frank Lautenberg, a senior Democratic senator from New Jersey. “Until Congress and the American public are assured that the Pakistani government is not shielding terrorists, financial aid to Pakistan should be suspended.”

Pakistan receives financial assistance from the United States for fighting terrorists. In his 2012 budget, President Barack Obama requested nearly $3 billion in foreign assistance for Pakistan, including $1.58 billion in funds for security-related programmes.

“I don’t know whether (cutting aid) would be effective or counter-productive, we’ll have to look at that,” said Congressman Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democratic leader in the House.

“It needs to be looked into.” Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, also backed calls for restraining US assistance to Pakistan.

“We clearly need to keep the pressure on Pakistan, and one way to do that is to put strings attached to the tremendous amount of military aid we give the country,” she said.

“I do understand the Pakistan government is under tremendous pressure internally, but the fact is it is in Pakistan’s own interest to work with us to defeat the terrorist threat.”

The White House also has added its voice to those seeking an explanation from Pakistan for Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, but has refrained from endorsing the demand for ending its alliance with Islamabad.

“It is inconceivable that Bin Laden did not have a support system in (Pakistan) that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time,” said White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan.

“We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long,” he said. “We are talking with the Pakistanis on a regular basis now, and we’re going to pursue all leads to find out exactly what type of support system and benefactors that Bin Laden might have had.”

Mr Brennan said it was understandable that congressional leaders were calling into question US aid to Pakistan. But he called the US-Pakistan alliance “critically important to breaking the back of Al Qaeda and eventually prevailing over Al Qaeda, as well as associated terrorist groups”.

US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, also warned against severing ties to Pakistan.

“Liaison partnerships are always — they’re never all-in propositions,” he said. “You have to take the service as you find it in the country of which you find it. And they — the ISI and Pakistan, the government of Pakistan – have been helpful to the United States when it comes to counter-terrorism actions and investigations.”

Other US lawmakers, however, pointed out that Abbottabad was only 40 miles north of Islamabad and was home to Pakistan’s military academy.