By John M. Donnelly and Emily Cadei
House appropriators raged Thursday about the continuing flow from Pakistan into Afghanistan of fertilizer that forms the main ingredient in the roadside bombs that are killing about half the troops who die in the war zone.
The outcry in the House alleging Pakistan's failure to help protect U.S. troops came as, on the other side of Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tried to temper anger at Pakistan that has led in both chambers to calls for cutting off U.S. aid to the country.
The vast majority of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan are made with ammonium nitrate, a chemical found in fertilizer that is produced in Pakistan, where it's legal, and transported across the border into Afghanistan, where it's illegal.
Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense said at Thursday's hearing that Pakistan has declined to color the fertilizer with dye or use other markers that would make it more identifiable during inspections at border crossings -- even though the United States has offered to pay for the marking process. Efforts to reformulate the fertilizer also have failed.
"How in the hell are we going to deal with this?" asked a frustrated Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. Calvert repeatedly referred to Pakistan as "our supposed ally" and said U.S. aid to Islamabad should be "directly tied" to its help with the fertilizer problem.
"We've got to start playing hardball with these guys," he said.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., was angry to discover that Congress or the president couldn't just order Pakistan to put markers in the fertilizer. "My God, what are we here for?" he asked.
Members of the panel from both parties said this inability to stem the source of the deadliest threat to U.S. troops because of the failure to secure cooperation from a nominal ally exemplifies what galls them about the war in Afghanistan. Similar concerns have been raised, for example, about Pakistan's support for the Haqqani insurgent network that is based within its borders.
"It is frustrating to know the source and yet still not stop the flow of this deadly material," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on Appropriations. "We choose not to do anything about it."
The fertilizer has been a concern for years of numerous members, none more than Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. But Pakistan has so far not managed to stem the flow.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, said at the hearing that a U.S. interagency task force is focused on the problem and that he could tell members of the panel more in a classified session that is in the works. Still, he acknowledged about Pakistan, "They can do more . ... I will tell you that we've talked a lot about cooperation. We've not seen cooperation."
"General, this committee has been talking about this for four years," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who called the U.S. government's response to the fertilizer problem "lame."
U.S. casualties overall and those due to roadside bombs are down in the past year due to a better ability to find and neutralize the bombs before they go off, Barbero said.
But the number of roadside bombs overall -- and fertilizer-based bombs in particular -- is growing, he said. IED events went up 42 percent from 2009 to 2011 (to 16,000) and are on track to at least hit that level in 2012, he said.
Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., had a more direct approach to reducing deaths to U.S. troops from roadside bombs. "The best way we can stop these horrendous losses of limbs and lives is to get our troops the hell out of there," he said.
"Not an Option'
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry denounced on Thursday a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to cut off all foreign aid to Pakistan and suggested that Pakistan may still act in the coming weeks or months to address one of Paul's key objections to continued assistance.
"Some people in the United States Congress are arguing that all aid ought to be cut off to a number of countries, summarily," Kerry noted in remarks following a meeting on Capitol Hill with Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. "Let me just say that walking away is simply not an option."
Kerry added that support for cutting aid to Islamabad "is not a majority view of the United States Congress," although he added that "Congress does look for assurances from Pakistan," when it comes to counterterrorism.
The Massachusetts Democrat also indicated that Pakistan was in the midst of a process evaluating the fate of Shakil Afridi, the surgeon who worked with the CIA to help gather information in the lead-up to the U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. In the wake of the raid, the Pakistanis arrested Afridi and sentenced him to 33 years in prison for treason. American officials have protested, and Paul has cited Afridi's case among his reasons to halt aid to Islamabad.
Topic Comes Up in Meeting With Khar
In a Washington Times op-ed this week, Paul, R-Ky., wrote that "Dr. Afridi remains under arrest and has been subject to torture. If Pakistan wants to be our ally -- and receive foreign aid -- then they should act like it, and they must start by releasing Dr. Afridi."
Asked about Afridi on Thursday, Kerry said senators had raised the subject in the meeting with Khar. "We did discuss Dr. Afridi in the meeting and our concerns were raised," Kerry said. The Pakistanis, he said, informed them that "there is a legal process under way now" to review his case, as well as a forthcoming report that he said "is a very independent judicial report on exactly what happened with Osama bin Laden."
"We need to both let the legal process proceed as well as see the results of that report and continue the dialogue with respect to the doctor. That will take place," Kerry said.
Paul has stalled Senate business in his push to get a vote on his amendment to cut all U.S. aid to Pakistan, as well as to Libya and Egypt in the wake of last week's embassy attacks.
The United States sends more than $4 billion in assistance to Islamabad from both the Pentagon and State Department budgets. Much of it goes to support and reimburse Pakistan's effort to combat Islamic militants based in the country.
Kerry on Thursday went out of his way to laud Pakistan's cooperation on that front.
"We're grateful to them for their assistance with respect to intelligence gathering and sharing and a number of other things we have done together in an effort to fight back against those who terrorize and those who want to destroy legitimate governments," he said. He also said Thursday's meeting was a step forward in rebuilding trust in the bilateral relation, which has been severely shaken by the bin Laden raid and other confrontations in the past year and a half.