In a rare show of bi-partisan unity, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 30-0 to withhold $33 million in military aid to Pakistan as a result of Islamabad's conviction of the doctor who assisted the CIA in finding Osama bin Laden. The panel cut $1 million for each year that Dr. Shakil Afridi was sentenced for treason and stipulated that the money would not be released until Afridi was pardoned.
Republicans and some former intelligence professionals expressed anger at the administration for failing to protect Dr. Afridi. Representative Peter King (R-NY) suggested that the White House "put him [Afridi] out there," but the administration immediately denied the charge, suggesting that it was Pakistan that leaked Afridi's name.
While the cut may be small, it comes on the heels of a re-examination of aid to Pakistan by Congress. In light of the closing by Pakistan of the primary truck route into Afghanistan last November following a friendly fire incident, the subcommittee on foreign aid voted recently to cut military assistance to Pakistan by 58%. And the anger expressed by senators over the treatment of Dr. Afridi suggests that a sea change may have occurred in congressional opinion regarding support for Pakistan, as members appear tired and frustrated with Islamabad's double game of supporting terrorists while reluctantly assisting US intelligence in tracking down members of al-Qaeda.
Who is Dr. Shakil Afridi and what was his role in the bin Laden raid? The top medic in the Kyber tribal region, Afridi was recruited by the CIA to run a fake Hepatitis-B vaccination program in Abbottabad in order to acquire a DNA sample from one of bin Laden's children in the compound where he was hiding. An investigation by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, concluded that Afridi probably didn't know he was helping the CIA find bin Laden specifically. Brig. General Shaukat Qadir, who conducted the investigation, wrote in a report obtained by the BBC that, "He was merely paid to follow instructions."
The mystery is why Afridi, who was arrested less than 3 weeks after bin Laden was killed, stuck around after the raid. It may be that Afridi believed his assistance to the CIA in killing bin Laden would please the Pakistani government. It is even possible that Afridi didn't know he was working for the CIA. Regardless, the Obama administration apparently did little to persuade the doctor to leave Pakistan.
Former intelligence analyst Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation told Fox News, "You probably wouldn't want to have tipped him off ahead of time, but maybe the day right afterward you would have wanted to have helped him leave Pakistan -- and the same with anybody else who was working with us."
But former military intelligence officer Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer told Fox News, "From what I'm hearing, we did pretty much nothing," he said. "We did nothing diplomatically at all, didn't raise a finger. ... From what my sources tell me, we did nothing to try and help this guy."
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland disputes that, saying the administration had "regularly taken up" the issue of Dr. Afridi with the Pakistani government. Shaffer suggests that if they did, they did not press the issue due to the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations over re-opening the truck route into Afghanistan.
The closure of that route last November following a mistaken bombing of a border post that killed 24 Pakistani policemen was the issue that caused the appropriations subcommittee to cut president Obama's request of $2.27 billion in military aid to Pakistan by 58%. "We’re not going to be giving money to an ally that won’t be an ally," said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Most of the money -- $800 million -- was cut from a counterinsurgency training fund, which was reduced to $50 million, and restoration of the funds was conditional on the Pakistani government re-opening the supply line.
That money still might be provided to the Pakistani army. Funds could be drawn from other sources in the foreign aid package to Islamabad, and there's even a chance that the full Senate, or the House might restore the cuts before sending the $52 billion foreign aid bill to the president for his signature.
But judging by the angry comments made by senators before they voted the $33 million in additional cuts to the military aid package, the congress has just about had it with Islamabad's unfriendly actions. The amendment was sponsored by Graham and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the South Carolina senator didn't mince words when urging his colleagues on the committee to vote for the measure:
"When it comes to Pakistan, every member of this committee is challenged to go home and answer the question, ‘Why are we helping Pakistan?'" he said. "We can't trust Pakistan, but we can't abandon them."
If we don't get those truck routes open so we can serve our troops in Afghanistan, we're going to stop the funding ... I do not expect Americans to sit on the sideline and watch the negotiations turn into extortion.
Rather than make excuses for Pakistan's actions as many on the Hill have done in the past, senators piled on the criticism of the government, military, and especially the double-dealing intelligence agency, the ISI. Perhaps the most serious criticism came from Appropriations Committee member Diane Feinstein (D-CA) who also chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I have long believed that Pakistan, especially the ISI, walks both sides of the street when it comes to terror," she said. Feinstein pointed out that the leaders of the Haqqani network and the Taliban live in Pakistan, and that the government has made little effort to apprehend them. She also alluded to the Afridi case, saying:
He was not and is not a spy for our country. This was not a crime against Pakistan. It was an effort and locate and help bring to justice the world's No. 1 terrorist. This conviction says to me that al Qaeda is viewed by the court to be Pakistan ... I don't know which side of the war Pakistan is on.
That sentiment was common among senators. "It is Alice in Wonderland, at best, but it is outrageous in itself. If this is cooperation, I would hate like heck to see opposition," said co-sponsor Senator Leahy.
What we have heard coming from Congress in recent days is a lot less sentimentality about how Pakistan and America need each other and some welcome realism about Pakistan's playing on that sentiment to advance their own interests which are directly opposed to both the US and Afghanistan. It should be clear after events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and other Arab countries affected by the "Arab Spring" that it is useless to try to use our influence to stop the Islamization of any country. If the people in Pakistan don't want to be ruled by Islamic fanatics, they are going to have to stop the rise of the Islamists themselves. Nothing we can do will affect the strengthening of the extremists in the Pakistani Taliban, or other Islamist groups seeking to take over the government of Pakistan and establish an Islamic state.
Does congressional anger over the conviction and imprisonment of Dr. Afridi as well as the steep cut in military aid to Pakistan mean that a sea change has taken place in opinion on the Hill and that a bi-partisan majority will seek to change the administration's line on relations with Islamabad? It certainly appears at this point that there has been a hardening of hearts toward Pakistan and that congressional patience with their playing both sides of the fence in the war against Islamic extremism is at an end.
If true, Pakistan will have to do a lot more to prove their worthiness of American tax dollars for their economy and their military. Acting like an ally rather than a duplicitous foe would be a good start.
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