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Kerry, Lugar defend Pakistan aid

By Laurie Ure, CNN National Security Producer
  • Kerry says the United States should not rush to judgment
  • Lugar says Pakistan is "a strategically vital country with which we must engage"
  • Witnesses tell a Senate committee a strategy shift is in order

(CNN) -- Two of Pakistan's key supporters in the U.S. Congress have acknowledged "real and serious questions" about Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, but defend sending money to that country nonetheless.

During a Senate hearing Wednesday assessing the limits of U.S policy in Pakistan, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D- Massachusetts, said that although he is "curious" about whether components of Pakistan's military or intelligence services were involved in protecting the compound's infamous resident, the U.S. should not rush to judgment that might ultimately hurt its national security.

"No matter what we learn about the events that preceded the killing of Osama bin Laden, we still have vital national security interests in this region, and we have worked hard to build a partnership with Pakistan, fragile and difficult and challenged as it may be at times," Kerry said.

Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, said that recent events have raised questions about Pakistan's reliability as an ally, but cautioned that it is "a strategically vital country with which we must engage."

"Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous," Lugar said, because it would weaken U.S. intelligence capabilities, limit America's ability to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, and further complicate military operations in Afghanistan.

Lugar also pointed out that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state, has a close working relationship with China, and is a neighbor of Iran, all of which he cited as worthwhile reasons to build stronger relations between Washington and Islamabad.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, authorizes $1.5 billion in annual aid to Pakistan through 2013. Critics question what that money is paying for.

"Pakistan acts very irrational," committee member Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said. "I mean, I leave there almost feeling like I've had a Rodney Dangerfield moment, you know, whenever I'm there."

Corker advocated that the United States "rearrange" its relationship with Pakistan to focus on routing out the remnants of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups inside the country.

Hearing witness Moeed Yusuf, South Asia advisor at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said the issue goes beyond war fighting.

"You need strong diplomacy and strong signals sent: We will not tolerate an organization which is linked to al Qaeda, that is killing American soldiers across the border in Afghanistan, that is posing threats to U.S. national security interests in the homeland. We will not allow you to continue to support this organization," Yusuf said.

Other witnesses shared the view that a strategy shift is in order.

Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director with the International Crisis Group, said the United States' certification requirements of the Pakistan partnership should ensure Pakistan takes firm action against violent extremist groups.

"We would advise and very strongly urge Congress to condition military assistance on demonstrable steps to combat violent extremists, that go beyond just al Qaeda, the foreign al Qaeda, but also homegrown jihadis," Ahmed said.

Michael Krepon, co-founder and South Asia senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center, said the U.S. policies in Afghanistan are hurting Pakistan.

"If authorities in Afghanistan are unable to safeguard our military's hard-won gains, we are obligated to ask how much more blood and treasure ought to be devoted to this cause," Krepon said.

He said the two countries are "now very close to another divorce," but it would be "a serious error in judgment ... to conclude that this relationship cannot be salvaged."