Congress Grills State Dept. on Aid to Pakistan

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony Wednesday about whether to make U.S. aid to Pakistan conditional on shutting down safe havens for terror groups.
     On the first anniversary of the massacre of more than 140 students and teachers at an army public school in Peshawar, carried out by affiliates of the Pakistani Taliban, some congressmen questioned whether the country is doing enough to fight terrorism.
     “Pakistan has provided some extremist groups safe haven and a permissive environment that allows extremist ideology to spread,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in opening remarks at the hearing on the future of U.S. and Pakistani relations.
     Richard Olson, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that despite challenges – including Pakistan’s struggle to rein in terrorist groups – the country is an important U.S. partner and has made progress in key areas.
     After the Peshawar attack, Pakistan undertook significant counterterrorism operations in tribal areas, Olson said, which “rooted out many terrorist safe havens.”
     Olson acknowledged that these operations, part of the Pakistani National Action Plan to address violent extremism, displaced more than 700,000 people.
     Olson cited Pakistan’s facilitation of a meeting between Taliban officials and the Afghan government in July, seeking a political settlement in Afghanistan, as evidence that Pakistan has taken “important steps to support regional stability.”
     Skeptical lawmakers pushed Olson about the Pakistani government’s resolve to deal with the Haqqani network – a Taliban insurgent group that has operated freely in Northern Waziristan province. The group, which fights U.S. and NATO forces, has frequently been targeted by U.S. drone strikes.
     “We continue to press them very hard on that matter,” Olson said, claiming that the public mood in Pakistan has shifted on the issue. There’s a broad consensus now in Pakistani politics that it is necessary to go after these groups, he said.
     In response to concerns about the acceleration of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Olson said the United States is engaged in “candid discussion” with Pakistan about the scope of its nuclear program and its short-range nuclear missiles.
     “Pakistan has been good about engaging with us on those issues,” he said, adding that the country takes seriously extremist and insurgent threats to its nuclear arsenal.
     “We have urged Pakistan to restrain its nuclear weapons and missile development and stressed the importance of avoiding any developments that might invite increased risk to nuclear safety, security, or strategic stability,” Olson said in written testimony.
     He said the United States is “not negotiating a 123 agreement with Pakistan,” as it has with India, to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation.
     An August report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center determined that Pakistan is outpacing India in production of nuclear warheads, and could have the third-largest nuclear arsenal in 10 years.
     Olson said continued engagement with Pakistan and investment in the country’s civil society are important for U.S. strategic interests and the stability of Pakistan.
     Asked whether the United States is getting enough bang for its buck on military assistance to Pakistan, Olson said that Obama Administration’s position is that the assistance program serves U.S. interests because it promotes stability.
     But Rep. Ed Royce, R-Cal., accused Pakistan of maintaining “an infrastructure of hate.”
     “I doubt that anyone who follows Pakistan closely was surprised to learn that one of the San Bernardino attackers – Tashfeen Malik – studied at a Pakistani school spreading a particularly conservative message,” Royce said.
     During a press conference Wednesday at the New York Police Department, FBI Director James Comey reiterated that the agency’s investigation determined that Malik and her husband, Siyed Rizwan Farook, became radicalized before the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
     He did not mention what role Malik’s school in Pakistan might have played in the development of her ideology, but said that the couple’s discussion of jihad and martyrdom happened in private, direct communications.
     “So far in this investigation, we have found no evidence of posting on social media, by either of them, at that period of time and thereafter, reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom,” Comey said.
     Republican critics of the Obama administration have claimed that immigration officials missed social media postings that could have stopped her visa application.
     Though investigators have yet to link Malik and Farook to any terror network, Royce said at least 600 schools in Pakistan need to be shut down.
     “Thousands of Deobandi madrasas, funded with Gulf state money, teach intolerant, hate-filled rhetoric that inspires the foot soldiers of jihadist terrorism,” Royce said.
     Olson agreed that the schools constitute a serious issue, which the national action plan addressed for the first time, which he called a significant development.
     He said parents need an alternative, because sometimes they send their children to the madrasas because they provide free education and meals.
     Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California, suggested providing free textbooks to Pakistan with content consistent with American values.

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