By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009
Senators who will shortly be voting on massive aid packages for Afghanistan and Pakistan grilled the presidents of both countries yesterday about their dedication to the fight against extremists and the capabilities of their democratic governments.
"The focus has not been as intense as it ought to be," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who co-hosted a closed-door lunch for the presidents attended by 24 of his colleagues. After listening to the two leaders, Kerry told reporters, "We're very, very hopeful now that that is going to change."
Others were less enthusiastic. Compared with their usual meetings with heads of state, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in an interview, it was "very, very frank." But "my guess is they left the room with a lot less support than they came into the room with," Corker said of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
Both leaders, Corker said, gave "vague" answers and seemed less committed to the counterinsurgency fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda than the United States is.
The guest list for the lunch included the large delegations of cabinet ministers and other officials accompanying the presidents on their two-day summit here with President Obama and other U.S. officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary of State Jacob J. "Jack" Lew. Also attending were Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to the two countries.
Holbrooke, who has shepherded the leaders to meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that the summit had been a "huge step forward" and that "people are working more closely together." Many of the ministers from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan "had never met each other before. Working operations are beginning." Yesterday's lunch, Holbrooke said, "helps increase the critical communication between President Zardari, President Karzai and members of Congress."
Kerry and Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, have co-sponsored an administration-backed bill to triple civilian U.S. aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over the next five years. The administration has also asked for significantly increased development assistance to Afghanistan and stepped-up military funding for both, in addition to deploying 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year.
Kerry described the lunch as "unprecedented" and the questions as "very pointed and very direct." According to several participants, there was significant back and forth, although Corker said he is "going to want to know a lot more" before voting to approve the requested aid. Karzai responded flippantly to a question about women's rights from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), saying he had picked a running mate who would please female voters. This week, he announced that former defense minister and warlord Mohammed Fahim would be his vice presidential running mate for elections this summer.
Asked about Pakistan's porous border with Afghanistan, which allows Taliban fighters to easily pass through, Zardari pushed back, Corker said, noting that the United States was unable to control its border with Mexico.
In response to a question about the Pakistani intelligence service's support of the Taliban, another attendee recalled, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Pakistan's intelligence chief, gave an impassioned defense of the service and its history and said its only current contact with extremists was through intelligence sources.
At the news conference after the lunch of chicken, salad and raspberry tart, Karzai referred to Zardari as "my dear brother" and said of the summit that he was "very, very happy with this engagement."
Zardari, who has pressed the Obama administration for increased aid, said: "I think the realization in the world that we have to form more cooperation, to defeat this enemy that we all jointly face, is coming home. And we are taking advantage of this position."