Does it make sense to punish Pakistan for the arrest of CIA informants?

The reported arrest of CIA informants who helped the US find Osama bin Laden has raised anger on Capitol Hill. But hastily punishing Pakistan could harm the US war effort in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials caution.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters
Men walk past a view point on a hilltop overlooking Abbottabad on June 15. Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid in Abbottabad on May 2.

Enthusiasm for aid to Pakistan has waned considerably on Capitol Hill and among presidential hopefuls following the news Tuesday that Pakistan had arrested the CIA informants who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.

But Pentagon officials – and some senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee – are cautioning that hasty moves to withdraw aid from the insurgency-plagued country that borders Afghanistan could have a negative impact on the US military’s war efforts.

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, cautioned that “changes to these relationships in either aid or assistance ought to be considered only with an abundance of caution and a thorough appreciation for the long view, rather than the flush of public passion and the urgency to save a dollar.”

Yet these two powerful catalysts are already having an impact on lawmakers sensitive to constituent concerns. After finding Al Qaeda’s leader bin Laden in a leafy suburb full of Pakistani military officers, “it is almost impossible for an American politician to continue to help Pakistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged Wednesday.

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he ominously warned that the Pakistani security forces who arrested the US intelligence assets “did more than arrest them – I’m sure that’ll come out later.”

Bill cuts aid to Pakistan

A House panel this week approved a defense spending bill that would cut aid to Pakistan and includes a provision to withhold three quarters of the $1.1 billion in US aid to the country until the administration reports to Congress on how it will spend the money.

This move was driven in large part by frustration with Pakistan’s “performance or non-performance,” which “rubs a lot of people the wrong way,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona.

“It’s very clear large parts of the Pakistani establishment are deeply anti-American. We should be very angry that they were, in fact, hiding bin Laden,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told Fox News. “When the Pakistani reaction is to punish the people who are helping America, I think we better rethink our entire relationship.”

But punishing Pakistan is not likely to help the cause of US troops in Afghanistan, say US military officials. The vast majority of the Pentagon’s armored vehicles, and most of the fuel that the US military uses, is transported to America’s many bases in landlocked Afghanistan via Karachi.

What’s more, officials point out, the United States cut off Pakistan after the country became a nuclear power, to disastrous effect. A generation of Pakistani military officers became more distrustful of the United States, they argue.

Continue frank dialogue

Instead, the officials say, the US should continue to engage in a frank dialogue with the country, which is more concerned about tensions with neighboring India than with insurgents in their borders.

“I’m optimistic about Pakistan if we have the willingness to confront them,” Senator Graham said. “I do believe at the end of the day the choice that Pakistan has to make is pretty clear.”

Yet as far as financial aid goes, US officials are “going to have to start putting conditions” on it, Graham said, including “benchmarks and measurements” of progress.

For now, Graham argued against cutting off aid entirely – or overestimating its importance. “The aid is probably replaceable,” he said. “So don’t let’s overcalculate the fact that we provide aid to the government and the Pakistani security forces as the ultimate leverage,” he said, “because it’s not.”

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