Pakistan faces a less-friendly US Congress

Two deadly attacks and a high-profile visit from a US congresswoman over the weekend have drawn further attention to Pakistan's precarious position as both a steward of the US-led war on terrorism and host to a restive population of Islamic extremists.

Pakistan's delicate balancing act has also added to the widening gulf between a skeptical Democratic Congress and a White House that has relied on Pakistani government cooperation since 9/11.

On Friday, in a rare attack in the capital, a suicide bomber killed himself and one other person at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. A day later, another suicide bomber killed 13 and wounded 60 in a suspected attack against Shiites in Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province.

In response to Pakistan's mounting instability, the White House announced Saturday that it would seek an additional $10.6 billion in aid for Afghanistan over the next two years – a dramatic increase from the $14.2 billion given since 2001.

Meanwhile, new US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Islamabad Saturday. She signaled in her meetings that a change in tone toward Pakistan – from quiet disagreement to blunt accusation – is sweeping the Democratic-led Congress, analysts say. That is suggestive of an emerging rift over how the US should deal with one of its most trusted allies in the war on terror.

Washington's policy has become increasingly clouded even as violence in Islamabad's backyard has reached unprecedented levels. US officials say nearly 140 suicide attacks occurred Afghanistan in 2006, as compared with 27 in 2005, and blame the uptick in part on a controversial deal Islamabad signed with Taliban militants inside Pakistan.

Ms. Pelosi's trip – her first abroad as speaker of the House, with stops in Iraq and Afghanistan – comes just weeks after Congress passed one of its first and most controversial pieces of legislation: a bill stipulating sanctions on military aid if Pakistan cannot control militants in its borders.

Attacks like this past weekend's confirm those concerns expressed in Congress's new bill. In language unusual in its specificity and bluntness – and echoing the international community's – the legislation calls for President Bush to certify that "the Government of Pakistan is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control, including in the cities of Quetta and Chaman and in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

The Bush administration said Friday it would oppose the bill before it becomes law, and reiterated its satisfaction with Islamabad's efforts. "The challenges of the last several months have demonstrated that we want to and we should redouble our efforts," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters while flying to Brussels for NATO sessions.

January's bill, officially called "Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007" still has to pass the Senate. And Mr. Bush has ultimate authority to waive the provision on sanctions. But the bill's critique is one of the strongest in a growing cacophony linking Pakistan to Afghanistan's growing violence.

"The signal is a very strong one being sent by Congress, and the [US] president has to act," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

If enacted, the bill threatens to alter a relationship, which, although flagging on its rhetorical surface, has been well fortified by cash. Pakistan has received $4.75 billion in "coalition support funds," in addition to billions for counterterrorism efforts – about $80 million per month. All told, Pakistan received the lion's share of $6.65 billion appropriated to the Defense Department for coalition support payments to "Pakistan, Jordan, and other key cooperating nations" between 2002 and 2007, according to Congressional reports. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated how much money Pakistan has received since 9/11.]

That funding is not likely to be cut, most observers agree. The stakes are too high, and the Bush administration, they add, is unwaveringly wedded to Pervez Musharraf's regime as the most effective ally in stopping terrorism in the region.

"The ultimate loser would be the United States if that money is withdrawn," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on Pakistan's military in Islamabad.

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