WASHINGTON — A senior Democratic senator expressed concerns Wednesday about the Obama administration's plan to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, saying he wasn't sure that would push Islamabad to take more aggressive action against extremists.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised questions about the Pakistani government's willingness to forcefully confront militants who have destabilized that country and neighboring Afghanistan.
"We've got ambivalent evidence as to whether or not they're committed to that goal," he said.
The plan would offer $1.5 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan annually for the next five years, up from the current $500 million a year.
The plan has been endorsed by President Obama and is a key part of his administration's Pakistan strategy. Supporters, including Vice President Joe Biden, argue that the aid will show the Pakistani people that the United States is committed to helping them.
They also hope that dramatically increasing nonmilitary aid will give the U.S. better leverage with the Pakistani government by raising the threat that aid might be cut off if it doesn't take more concrete action against the militants.
Although few other Democrats have expressed public concerns about the Pakistan strategy, Levin's reservations suggest that potential obstacles for the administration could emerge.
Levin criticized the Pakistani government for failing to secure the border with Afghanistan and allowing Taliban militants to operate in the Pakistani city of Quetta. The additional aid for Pakistan could work, Levin said, if it meshes with Islamabad's goals. But he suggested that the plan could backfire if the Pakistani public thinks the U.S. is trying to buy its cooperation.
"It's got to be that we are supporting Pakistan policies, because if we appear to be buying something they otherwise would not pursue, it is counterproductive," Levin said.
Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, said that a string of terrorist attacks in Pakistan were turning both the Pakistani leadership and people against extremist militants.
"The problem is making itself very much felt," said Flournoy, one of the witnesses testifying before the Senate panel Wednesday. "And so I do think we are in a different moment of opportunity now."
But Flournoy, along with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, urged the Senate to support the additional aid to Pakistan. Supporters of the increased aid believe there are few other options to nudge the Pakistanis into taking action against militants.
And Flournoy said that if Pakistan did not do a better job taking on militants, the U.S. would cut back on its aid programs.
"This support, both military and economic, will be limited if we do not see improvements in Pakistani performance," she said.
Petraeus said that increased operations by the Pakistani military in the tribal regions were vital to reduce the extremist threats. But he said it was also crucial that the U.S. not be seen as a fickle ally.
The U.S., which has thousands of troops in Afghanistan, will increase its cross-border cooperation and intelligence-sharing with Pakistan and also try to boost military exchange programs, Petraeus said.
And military officials appearing before Levin on Wednesday signaled that if the Pakistanis allow it, they can step up their partnership.
"In Pakistan, we continue to work with security forces at the scale and pace set by them, and we are prepared to do more," said Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command.