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Democrats and Republicans alike Wednesday warned against knee-jerk calls for an end to aid to Pakistan, reminding angry colleagues that the troubled government remains an essential partner in the war on terrorism.
Since it was announced Sunday evening that U.S. special operations forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a suburb of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the public outcry against the country has grown. Lawmakers have already scheduled hearings into whether government officials — many of whom lived within miles of bin Laden for the past five years — knew the wanted terrorist was living there, and members of both parties have demanded an end to the more than $1 billion in aid Pakistan receives yearly.
But on Wednesday, several key lawmakers in both parties warned that it is too soon to retaliate.
“There’s suspicions that some of the people in the government knew he was there,” Congressional Pakistan Caucus Co-Chairman Dan Burton said. “Some probably did.”
Nevertheless, the Indiana Republican doesn’t favor swift reprisal.
“I really believe we’ve got to take a breath, take a look at the United States’ interests in the long term [and] take a look at the big picture,” he said. “And I just don’t think we can make that decision yet.”
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon said, “I think people who have been married 30 years still have some problems, but they don’t get divorced.”
The California Republican, who met with Pakistan’s defense minister Wednesday, said it’s important that what is said in private between two countries remain private, but he said that publicly it is important to work things out.
“People need to keep their eyes on the ultimate goal to defeat the Taliban and the war on terrorism,” McKeon said.
Democrats also warned against rash reactions.
“People either knew, were working with bin Laden, or they were extremely incompetent,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger said. “I hope they were incompetent.”
Ruppersberger, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, argued that “just like we needed Turkey to go into Iraq,” Pakistan remains the primary supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Any move the U.S. makes to cut funding to Pakistan could put that strategic asset in jeopardy.
On a more political level, the Maryland Democrat also argued the current crisis in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship could prove to be an opportunity “to reset our relationship with Pakistan, which has been deteriorating for several months now.”
U.S. officials should use the situation to bluntly warn Pakistani officials that “we give you money. We helped you with your floods. There comes a time when you need to do more, to step up.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill said that while there is “a lot of hot air around here about how to get to the bottom of it,” Members need to be cautious given Pakistan’s strategic importance.
“We have to be really careful here. We have to go through Pakistan to supply our troops. We have to keep our eye on the ball here. They have nuclear capability. They are in a very dangerous part of the world,” the Missouri Democrat said.
“We have thousands of men and women at risk in Afghanistan right now. So I just think that we need to be very calm and deliberative about how we examine the whole situation with our relationship with Pakistan,” she added.
Pakistan was also taking steps to shore up its relations with the U.S. on Wednesday, tasking veteran lobbyist Mark Siegel with mending fences and rebutting claims that top officials knew bin Laden was in the country.
“I’m answering a lot of questions trying to disabuse people of speculation,” said Siegel, who heads a seven-member team at Locke Lord Strategies that works on the Pakistan portfolio.
Siegel, who reports to the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, acknowledged that recent events have increased tensions between the countries.
“Obviously there is a crisis of relations,” he said, noting that Ambassador Husain Haqqani has also been meeting with Members to reassure them.
He said the Pakistani government is conducting investigations regarding intelligence shortcomings to make sure such lapses don’t happen again.
Siegel would not say specifically whom he was meeting with on Capitol Hill but said it was with staffers and members of relevant committees.
Over the years, Siegel and his firm have been aggressive advocates for U.S. aid to Pakistan, meeting with and sending emails to staff and Members, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act filings with the Justice Department. He has met with Senate staff over the years. Between November 2009 and August 2010, the firm was paid $992,000 by the Pakistani government for its services, the filings show.
Alex Knott contributed to this report.