WASHINGTON -- For the second time in a week, the Obama administration's special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has appeared before Congress to testify about U.S. policy toward those two countries.
At issue during the May 12 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was proposed legislation that Holbrooke supports to give Pakistan $7.5 billion over the next four years to fight extremists, particularly Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants hiding in lawless northwestern Pakistan.
Skeptics have expressed concern over how wisely the money would be spent, and some members of the committee questioned whether any army can be victorious against guerrilla forces in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
They noted that since the days of Alexander the Great, in the fourth century B.C., Afghanistan has defeated the Greeks, the British, and the Soviets.
Committee member Senator James Risch (Republican, Idaho) said he shares U.S. President Barack Obama's determination to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda once and for all in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But asked if the proposed payments to Pakistan would deny militants safe haven in that country, he said "Afghanistan is very, very depressing, and I'd like to -- with the money we're putting in there, we need to have something much, much more concrete than what we have."
Risch added: "I'd love to see an endgame, but I don't know who's smart enough to develop an endgame in that country. It's very depressing."
Holbrooke said his own view was not dissimilar to Risch's, adding that he might quibble with the senator over one or two details but that the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically since 2004. That trend, Holbrooke said, "has increased the pressure in Pakistan and vice versa."
"We all understand that, Senator, that's why we're here. We're trying to turn around the situation, which was clearly in decline when the [U.S.] administrations changed [from George W. Bush to Obama], and I'm very grateful for the support and advice of this committee, and of the Senate in general, because we have a common enemy and a common threat and a common mission here."
Holbrooke called "pathetic" the amount of money spent on Pakistan under Bush, which amounted to about one-third of the money Obama is proposing. He added that if the money was spent well, the Pakistani army could be turned into a fine counterinsurgency force.
Asked by Senator Russell Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin) whether he was convinced that Pakistan was doing all it could to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants within its borders, Holbrooke replied that he couldn't say for sure. But he said the White House was aware of the risk of allying with Pakistan, and he acknowledged that Pakistan had a history of capturing and killing some of these fighters, while putting much less pressure on others.
Senator Robert Casey Jr. (Democrat, Pennsylvania) asked Holbrooke if he thought India could help ease the pressure on Pakistan. Casey noted that Pakistan's army has been trained to fight the Indian army, a conventional force that it has faced on the battlefield twice before.
"I ask you this with regard to India: Are there steps that India can take in the context of this whole discussion to help lower the temperature or create an environment where Pakistan can ease up a little bit as they have already?" Casey asked. "I know they've moved some of their military forces from the border, but are there efforts that India can undertake -- not just on its own but by our urging -- that would help here?"
Holbrooke noted that India was in the midst of a national election, and said tension between India and Pakistan was always high.
"My job is Afghanistan and Pakistan, but at all steps in the process, we keep the Indians fully informed," Holbrooke said. "They are not only an interested party, they're arguably the interested party, although many other countries, including most notably China and Iran, have borders with Afghanistan and also have interests. But India's interests are very high. India is the great regional power, and I have great personal respect and affection for India."