WASHINGTON - With Pakistan seeming to be playing the role of both "firefighter and arsonist" when it comes to helping the U.S. fight terrorism, Congress has begun openly debating its relationships with the troubled Asian nation.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats warned Pakistan on Tuesday that billions of dollars in American aid are at stake if Islamabad doesn't step up its efforts against terrorists, a clear sign of the growing exasperation after the U.S. takedown of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.
Just back from a weekend trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat, said he told Pakistani leaders about the deep concerns in Congress and the nation about the country's eagerness in the terror fight. The White House signed off on Kerry's trip, which sought to ease tensions with Pakistan.
"I underscored the importance of seizing this moment to firmly reject an anti-American narrative that exploits our differences instead of finding common ground and advancing mutual goals," Kerry said, three hours after landing on U.S. soil.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker said many in Congress "are wanting to call 'time out' on aid until we can ascertain what is in our best interest and what I would consider to be more of a transactional relationship."
The United States has provided some $20 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, and there have been efforts in Congress to cut some of the $1.1 billion for Pakistan in the defense bill in the House.
Following Kerry's visit to Pakistan, the two nations released a joint statement pledging cooperation on "high value" terrorist targets.
The pledge, which was made in a joint statement, could help mollify Pakistani officials and citizens, who were enraged that one of the country's most important allies would conduct a unilateral operation on its soil. But details of the promised cooperation were unclear.
Before the hearing on Pakistan-U.S. relations, Sen. Dick Luger (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement that detailed the reasons it's been so difficult to deal with Pakistan's leadership:
"One of the main problems in dealing with Pakistan is that its government is not a monolith, but rather a collection of different power centers that interact in complex ways. There is the elected civilian government, which over the years has not always been strong or stable; the uniformed military, which has seized power at various junctures; the intelligence service, which has its own independence within the military; and, we are told, a shadowy group of former intelligence agents that can act on its own. These different actors alternately compete and cooperate with one another, and their influence periodically waxes and wanes. Equally vexing, each of the players can support U.S. policies one moment, but obstruct them the next. Add to this mix volatile public elements that can be whipped into an anti-American fervor, and you have a partner who can seem, as some have said, to be both firefighter and arsonist."
Retired Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama's former national security adviser, suggested Tuesday the United States imposes conditions on American aid, linking it to whether Pakistan rejects terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy and takes definitive steps to go after terrorists.
"Unless and until they commit to doing those things, it's going to be difficult, I think, to get a significant - get our taxpayers to understand the logic of continuing to support a country that doesn't seem to be able to get its act together on that particular - those particular very logical points," Jones told the committee.
The frayed relationship between the two nations was tested again Tuesday, as a NATO helicopter crossed into Pakistani territory and opened fire on a border post on Tuesday, wounding two soldiers and drawing return fire, local officials said.
Pakistan protested the latest incursion, but a Western military official in Afghanistan gave a different version of events. He and a NATO spokesman said there was firing at the border but they did not confirm that Pakistani border troops were the target or had been hit.}
The official said a NATO base in Afghanistan took intermittent direct and indirect fire from the Pakistani side of the border. Two helicopters flew into the area, and one fired across the border after twice taking fire from the Pakistani side, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Also Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani began a visit to China, with his country's old ally looking more attractive amid the increased tension with the U.S.
Much is at stake for both sides. The United States needs Pakistan's cooperation if it hopes to find a solution to the Afghan war and help a reconciliation process that hopes to fashion a nonmilitary solution to the Taliban insurgency. It also needs Pakistan's military help against insurgents using its lawless tribal areas to stage attacks against American, coalition and Afghan forces.
It also needs to ensure that nuclear-armed Pakistan does not succumb to rising Islamic extremism and its own tenacious insurgency, which has cost the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Pakistan's failing economy desperately needs American and other foreign aid. Since 2002, Pakistan has received more than $20 billion from the U.S., making the country one of the largest U.S. aid recipients, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly $9 billion of that has been reimbursements for Pakistan's costs to support the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.