The Barack Obama administration is facing a clash with the United States Congress, where pressure is building to slash the huge aid budget to Pakistan as punishment for Osama bin Laden’s presence in that country.
Members of Congress are lining up to question continued spending on Pakistan, the third-highest recipient of US aid, which is threatening retaliation. Obama and US officials have said the fact that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan’s main military academy and many retired officers and 64km north of the capital, Islamabad, suggests he had benefited from an extensive support network, possibly involving Pakistani officials.
The US administration is, however, urging Congress not to make snap judgments. It is emphasising the overriding need for Islamabad’s continued cooperation in the war in Afghanistan and for a crackdown on militants in Pakistan.
The discovery that bin Laden was living in a largely military town has raised concerns about the security of the country’s fast-growing nuclear stockpile and the possibility that a terrorist group could steal the components for a bomb.
“There is no doubt Congress will cut aid,” said Michael Krepon, a specialist on South Asia at the Stimson Centre think-tank in Washington, who gave evidence on Pakistan last week to the Senate foreign relations committee. “It is hard to see Congress just waving away the presence of bin Laden in Abbottabad,” he said.
Members of Congress will not be appeased by remarks made by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who this week said any future US operation within its borders similar to the unilateral strike against bin Laden would be met with full force by the Pakistan military.
The US has allocated $1,5-billion in aid for Pakistan this year and again next year. Only Israel and Afghanistan receive more. Even before the bin Laden row, resentment had been growing in Congress over the mismanagement of funds. The US government accountability office, in a report this year, found that only $179,5-million of $1,5-billion allocated for this year has been disbursed.
The tension between the US and Pakistan over the CIA operative Raymond Davis this year also angered members of Congress, as did a report revealing an expansion in Pakistan’s nuclear programme. John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the committee, caution against hasty judgments on Pakistan. They are easily outnumbered by members of Congress looking for cuts, or at least concessions, from Pakistan.
Some are demanding immediate suspension of aid. Ted Poe, a Republican congressman, introduced a Bill last week “to prohibit any foreign aid from being sent to Pakistan until it can demonstrate that it had no knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts”.
The Obama administration, sensing Pakistan’s vulnerability and embarrassment over the issue, is hoping that it can use the row to push Pakistan into capturing other senior al-Qaeda figures, such as its deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who many members of Congress claim is in Pakistan, or the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. It may also seek concessions elsewhere, such as promises of increased safeguards or monitoring in relation to its nuclear stockpile.
Olli Heinonen, the UN’s chief nuclear inspector until last year, said he believed Pakistan could have the world’s fourth-biggest nuclear arsenal by the end of the decade. “It is really important that the security system is not compromised. The investigation has to be wide enough, not just into why bin Laden happened to be in this particular town. The whole security regime has to be reviewed to ensure that the nuclear assets are secure,” said Heinonen.
Until now the US has publicly accepted Pakistani assurances that its nuclear warheads — about 100 — are under tight military control, but Heinonen said there were greater concerns about the security of the nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, where the plutonium is made. “It is easier to steal from these bulk-handling facilities and the question is: are they really as well-secured as the warheads? There is no international monitoring whatsoever at these places.”
David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said: “He was in the heart of Pakistan and active, which raises the question that bin Laden may have been trying to infiltrate the nuclear programme by recruiting an insider. I’m sure [US officials] are looking frantically for that.”
Bin Laden had declared the acquisition of a nuclear bomb a “religious duty”, and his top lieutenant in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, said two years ago that the group hoped to seize and use weapons from Pakistan’s arsenal.
“There are thousands of people involved in the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium,” said Albright, adding that Pakistan’s expansion programme would inevitably put strains on security. “If you have to hire a lot of people at one time, it’s harder to do the security checks and harder to monitor them.” —