Forums / Political & Legal / Pakistan, Afghanistan take center stage on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Concerns over recent Taliban gains in Pakistan and Afghanistan are taking center stage on Capitol Hill Tuesday as President Obama's point man for the region testifies before a key House committee.
Richard Holbrooke is expected to say that increased military and civilian aid is urgently needed in Pakistan.

Richard Holbrooke is expected to say that increased military and civilian aid is urgently needed in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai also will be visiting key congressional leaders and policymakers in advance of meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later this week.

The visits are part of a series of tri-lateral meetings aimed at coordinating strategy in the region.

Obama's special representative to the region, veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, is expected tell members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that increased military and civilian aid is urgently needed in Pakistan.

Obama said last week that Pakistan's government appears "very fragile" and noted that it doesn't "seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services." The president argued that the United States has "huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable" and doesn't end up a "nuclear-armed militant state."

Holbrooke's testimony comes the day after two leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation tripling aid to Pakistan.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, introduced by Sens. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Dick Lugar, R-Indiana, authorizes $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan over the next five years to foster economic growth and development, and another $7.5 billion for the following five years.

The $1.5 billion per year would triple U.S. aid levels, currently at $500 million per year. In the past, U.S. military aid has surpassed economic and other assistance. The legislation also would separate military from nonmilitary aid, promising that economic aid "is no longer the poor cousin to military aid."

The Kerry-Lugar bill takes into account the fluid situation in Pakistan, leaving military aid to be determined on a year-by-year basis. But it requires Obama to certify Pakistani forces are making progress in combating al Qaeda and the Taliban and not interfering with civilian rule in order for aid to continue, a condition both the Obama administration and the Pakistani government have opposed.
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The bill also calls for strict benchmarks to measure the effectiveness of the aid.

In rolling out his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, Obama called on Congress to pass a stronger regional aid bill, versions of which have been introduced in previous sessions of Congress.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's military is continuing an assault on militants in Taliban-held areas after they seized territory in violation of an agreement signed this year by Zardari. The deal, criticized by the United States, allowed the Taliban to implement Islamic law, or sharia, in the region where the Taliban is strongest in exchange for an end to fighting.

On Tuesday, Pakistani civilians were ordered to evacuate areas of the Swat Valley, a signal that the country may soon launch another military offensive against the Taliban. Around 500,000 people are now planning to migrate out of the region, according to a Pakistani government official.

Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber in a car filled with explosives rammed into a Pakistani security vehicle at a government checkpoint just outside Peshawar, killing six security forces and wounding 30 people.

The bomb went off in morning rush hour. At least two children on their way to school received head wounds as a result of the blast, authorities said.

For the last two weeks, Pakistani troops have been battling Taliban fighters in Buner and Lower Dir, two districts bordering Swat. Army generals claim to have killed scores of militants.

The United Nations estimates more then 50,000 civilians have fled the fighting in Buner, located a little more then 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of the Pakistani capital.

The recent operations are part of the Pakistani army's intensified drive against the Taliban in its restive tribal regions. The Pakistani government has been criticized for not cracking down on militants along its border with Afghanistan. The militant activity in the border region has led the U.S. military to carry out airstrikes against militant targets in Pakistan. The strikes have rankled relations between the two countries.

"Pakistan is a nation that is committed to rooting out extremism and Talibanization in our region, Pakistan's U.S. ambassador Husain Haqqani said Tuesday on CNN's "American Morning."

"As partners, (the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) can certainly contain the Taliban. The important thing is that we don't get into a shouting match with one another. Understand that we are in this together."

After making two visits to Pakistan in the last three weeks, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that he is "gravely concerned" about recent Taliban and al Qaeda gains across much of southern Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

The Taliban and al Qaeda are "recruiting through intimidation, controlling through fear, and advancing an unwelcome ideology through thuggery," Mullen said.

Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently called Taliban gains in Pakistan an "existential threat" to the country

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