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Congress Debates Increasing Aid to Pakistan

May 5, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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As lawmakers debate boosting aid to Pakistan amid renewed fighting in the country's Swat Valley, President Barack Obama is preparing to meet with the region's leaders to discuss security concerns and counterinsurgency measures. Margaret Warner reports.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner reports on U.S. efforts to strengthen Pakistan in its fight with the Taliban.

MARGARET WARNER: In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, villagers fled renewed fighting today between government forces and Taliban militants who’ve taken over there. Officials fear that as many as 500,000 people could flee the area close to the capital, Islamabad.

The deteriorating security picture has sharpened Washington’s attention on the grinding poverty in Pakistan, collapsing schools, hungry children, and a government seen as not delivering for its people.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan. The civilian government there right now is very fragile and don’t seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services, schools, health care, you know, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people.

And so, as a consequence, it is very difficult for them to gain the support and the loyalty of their people. So we need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis.

MARGARET WARNER: So the White House is pushing on two tracks. It wants Congress to boost U.S. military aid for Pakistan, and it’s also asking Congress to launch a hefty civilian aid program, $1.5 billion a year for five years, to build up infrastructure, education, and health for ordinary Pakistanis.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan: We cannot do anything other than try to help stabilize Pakistan in the face of the mess of challenges it faces.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is the president’s point-man for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Foreign assistance is critical in that process, both for what it can do to help Pakistan overcome the brutal efforts of the Taliban and al-Qaida and other extremist groups, and for the good it will do for the region itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, agrees his country urgently needs more civilian aid.

HUSAIN HAQQANI, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States: Forty-eight percent of Pakistani school-going-age children do not go to school. So in an environment like that, it’s easier for extremists to recruit based on the fact that people do not have anything to live for in terms of hope.

And so a civilian aid package, a multi-year civilian aid package, is meant to assure the people of Pakistan that the United States is their friend, is interested in giving them education, health care, and a future for their children.

MARGARET WARNER: But other voices in Washington are questioning whether the money will be spent as intended or be siphoned off by corruption and graft.

CHRISTINE FAIR, Rand Corporation: I have a lot of doubts about whether, at the end of it, it’s going to be effective.

Concerns over corruption, graft

MARGARET WARNER: Christine Fair is an analyst at the Rand Research Organization. Fluent in Urdu, she traveled frequently to Pakistan.

CHRISTINE FAIR: There have been a number of non-military programs. It's not clear that Pakistanis have seen value. Some people outright say, "We can't find the money." We gave the money to the Pakistanis; we don't know where the monies went for some of these programs.

MARGARET WARNER: And she doesn't think replacing years of military rule with the newly elected civilian government has changed the basic political culture.

CHRISTINE FAIR: I don't see real genuine reformers. I see political parties that are mired in patronage. They're not interested in providing government services. They are interested in maximizing personal gain.

And without a genuine reformer in these ministries and institutions where this money is supposed to go, I don't see how we're going to see a subsequently different outcome.

MARGARET WARNER: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman agrees with that diagnosis.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN, D-Calif.: We've sent money in the past. It has been stolen. It has not been spent on the purposes that it was intended for. So we don't want to go through that again.

And that's why, in this legislation, we focus on monitoring, on accountability, on oversight. We want to know where every dollar is going and that it's being used for the purposes that we appropriated it.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: In all government spending, there's always the prospect of either waste or corruption.

MARGARET WARNER: Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani acknowledges the possibility of graft and corruption, but says the problem is exaggerated.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: ... to me, seems to misplace priorities. You have an insurgency here. You have a potential threat to global security here, that our young people, with no hope and no future, joining the ranks of the militants in the Taliban and the al-Qaida, and instead of focusing on the main factor which is the spirit, you get obsessed about methods of spending the money.

MARGARET WARNER: It may not be an obsession. But on Capitol Hill, there is deep concern about how the Pakistani aid will be spent this time and whether there should be U.S. strings attached to control it.

At a House hearing today before Chairman Berman's committee, members voiced alarm at Islamabad's ineffectiveness in dealing with a rapidly deteriorating situation.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN: It appears to many of us that Pakistan is at a tipping point. And we need to do whatever we can to make sure it goes the right way.

REP. GARY ACKERMAN, D-N.Y.: Let me be blunt: Pakistan's pants are on fire. President Zardari has said the right things regarding counterterrorism, but in practice his government's response has been slow, weak and ineffective.

Expectations for Pakistan

MARGARET WARNER: Berman's aid bill tries to buck up the Pakistani government's performance. It includes a long list of expectations on the civilian aid side, among them calling on Pakistan to comply with international accounting standards and close religious schools, or madrassas, with links to terrorism.

And it imposes outright conditions on the military aid. Assistance would be withheld: unless President Obama certifies that Pakistan has ended support for extremist groups targeting U.S. forces or neighbors Afghanistan or India; close terrorist camps inside Pakistan; and is helping the U.S. shut down Pakistani networks that have shared the country's nuclear know-how with other nations.

At today's hearing, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said the aid should be conditioned on the U.S. getting access to scientist A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb program, who sold the technology secretly abroad.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, R-Calif.: There are leaders in Pakistan who oppose our getting to the real facts concerning A.Q. Khan. Then those people are not our friends.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Congressman, as we speak -- and as Chairman Berman pointed out at the beginning -- the enemy of our nation, as well as Pakistan, is active in the field not too far from the capital. We need to help Pakistan, and we need to weigh the help against the accountability issues to find the right balance.

MARGARET WARNER: The proposed conditions have provoked a backlash in Pakistan.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: It's like asking for a pre-nup before even proposing. And I think that that is -- that basically does not create faith, that does not create understanding, and that certainly does not win hearts and minds.

MARGARET WARNER: Given the track record, why should the U.S. Congress or the U.S. taxpayer trust the Pakistani government to make sure that all this money isn't stolen?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: I think that the question of how the money will be spent should be entrusted to the elected leadership of Pakistan. I think this attitude that somehow our oversight is superior to your oversight is something that needs to be reconsidered.

MARGARET WARNER: Not so fast, says Berman.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN: We're not trying to impose our notions on them. They have accepted that this is the purpose for which they are going to operate and the commitments they have made. And we just want to hold them to those commitments.

MARGARET WARNER: And the Pakistanis are saying, "Fine, that's true, so let us handle it."

REP. HOWARD BERMAN: And somebody has to see whether they're doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: But given how unpopular the shaky new Pakistani government is, the White House is resisting moves to impose congressional conditions on the aid.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I am perfectly sympathetic to their objective, and many of these conditions are perfectly rational. But if you attach too many conditions, you can end up with a disastrous outcome in which the very thing you're trying to do is undermined by too onerous a set of conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: Debate over this will continue on Capitol Hill and will no doubt come up in Pakistan President Zardari's meetings in Washington this week.

But all the players seem agreed on one thing: As matters seem to go from bad to worse in Pakistan, doing nothing is not an option.

Skepticism on Capitol Hill

GWEN IFILL: Margaret was in that congressional hearing today as lawmakers expressed their alarm about the situation in Pakistan. It comes on the eve of President Obama's meeting with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House tomorrow.

Margaret, it seems to me that up at the Hill today there was a fair amount of skepticism. So what was it that Ambassador Holbrooke was trying to do?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, as we heard, there were a number of fire references at this hearing. And he was there as a fireman, to put out the fire, for instance, to impose a lot of conditions, anyway, on this aid, and also to put out this sort of gnawing sense on Capitol Hill that the stability of Pakistan has become so precarious that the Obama administration perhaps is throwing good money after bad in going in there in a big way.

So you heard Ambassador Holbrooke say today, This state is not on the verge of collapse. It is under a lot of economic and political and social pressures, but Pakistan's not a failed state.

Finally, he had to put out another fire, which is, back in Pakistan, the Pakistani press has been full of reports that the Obama administration is about to abandon Zardari in favor of his chief rival, arch rival, Nawaz Sharif. So...

GWEN IFILL: Is there anything to support that notion?

MARGARET WARNER: There is growing concern, actually, in the Obama administration that Zardari's popularity numbers are so low -- lower than Musharraf's were, military leader Musharraf's before he was ousted -- that, in fact, he is in a precarious situation.

But Holbrooke's message today was, This is the elected government. We have strategic success -- we have a strategic interest in the success of this elected government.

GWEN IFILL: So that political part may play some backdrop to tomorrow's meetings...


GWEN IFILL: ... certainly at the White House. So were there questions that the members of Congress brought today to ask Ambassador Holbrooke that perhaps he wasn't prepared to answer?

MARGARET WARNER: I would say he sidestepped a number of concerns. I mean, one was, how confident is the administration that the nuclear sites and arsenal of Pakistan are really safe, given that the Taliban seems to be taking over more territory?

Another was -- and we've all asked this question of Ambassador Holbrooke ourselves -- what does he -- does he think that members of the intelligence services in Pakistan are still supporting elements of the Taliban and al-Qaida?

And another one he didn't really answer was whether this new army offensive in the Swat Valley means that the Pakistani government is now ready to call off the deal and go in there and clean them out or something less than that.

Commitment of Pakistani government

GWEN IFILL: Now, to answer any one of these questions would do what, would put the administration farther than it's able to go or put it in a place that it simply doesn't know the answers yet?

MARGARET WARNER: It may be a combination of both, but it would draw him and the administration into publicly expressing doubts about the commitment of the Pakistani government.

And on one particular answer, he said publicly that even if -- oh, I know. It had to do with supporting somebody else, supporting Nawaz Sharif. And he said, For me to say anything like that publicly would totally undercut the government of Pakistan and essentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That was true on a lot of these questions. I think he did not want to say things that would completely telegraph a lack of confidence in Zardari.

GWEN IFILL: So Ambassador Holbrooke went to the Hill today to try to rebuild confidence and this idea that we had no choice, the U.S. has no choice but to support Pakistan, to support the current government. Was it clear at all by the end of this hearing that he had accomplished what he set out to do or were the lawmakers' deep-seated worries still in place?

MARGARET WARNER: I think their worries are very much still in place. At the same time, even those that we just showed raising questions, all said, Ambassador Holbrooke, we share your view and Congressman Berman's view that we need a bill like this.

They all know that Pakistan can't be walked away from by the U.S. And Holbrooke, in fact, made a point of saying, I've heard a lot of talk about Vietnam here. There are some parallels. But the difference is, in Vietnam, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were not out to attack the U.S. homeland. Here, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the enemy there does have the U.S. in its targets and essentially we just cannot walk away.

That was his message.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Margaret Warner, thanks a lot.