Pakistan watchers were scratching their heads Thursday night when the Senate failed to confirm President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next ambassador to Pakistan, Rick Olson. On Friday, The Cable confirmed that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) objected to the nomination, pushing off Olson's confirmation until at least September.
Two senior Senate aides close to the issue told The Cable that the nominations of both Olson and James Cunningham to be the next ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, were at risk of not being included in the string of nominations confirmed by the Senate by unanimous consent late Thursday, just before senators adjourned for a five-week recess. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, whose health is declining, intervened and made calls on behalf of Cunningham and Olson, but only Cunningham got confirmed.
Two GOP Senate aides said that some Senate Foreign Relations Committee members were upset that the Cunningham and Olson nominations were rushed through the process and they didn't have time to submit questions for the record and get answers. There was no SFRC business meeting on the nominations, and both were discharged from the committee and sent to the floor without the committee weighing in.
The concerns about Olson, who previously served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, aren't personal, but committee members want more detail on the would-be envoy's proposed approach to the Haqqani network, the militant group that has been waging cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Olson promised to make the issue a priority at his July 31 confirmation hearing, but multiple senators want to use the opportunity to gauge if the administration plans to include the Haqqani network in any effort to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war.
"Given the highly sensitive U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it is important to have a fully vetted ambassador. Both the White House and Chairman Kerry know this, and should have planned accordingly," one GOP senate aide said.
For Paul, his hold on the Olson nomination is part of his overall effort to pressure the Pakistani government to release Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced in June to 33 years in jail for treason. Paul is not only holding up the confirmation of the U.S. ambassador, he is also threatening to force a vote to cut all U.S. aid to Pakistan over the issue, the aides said.
Paul's office did not respond to our request for comment, but The Cable caught up with the senator himself in the hallways of the Capitol Thursday. He said he had met with the State Department and with Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman, and told them that he will keep pressing the issue unless Afridi is released. Afridi's next hearing is Aug. 29.
Senate leadership is dead-set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publicly stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to Pakistan. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.
"We are still hopeful that Pakistan will relook at the evidence and decide that they don't want to hold him. If they do, we will probably not press for the vote. If they don't, I have 16 signatures to try to force a vote," Paul said. "It's not a guarantee I'll get a vote, but it's a guarantee I'll be a thorn in somebody's side."
It's doubtful that the Pakistanis will free Afridi to satisfy Paul, and senior senators lament the delay in Olson's confirmation.
"Democrats and Republicans always say that the key to Afghanistan is securing cooperation with Pakistan. That's reason enough to have a top-notch diplomat in place in Islamabad," Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable.
"This is a complicated relationship that demands constant attention. We've been working day and night with Pakistan to build a stable economy and strengthen our engagement with its people, and after such a tumultuous year, this is exactly the wrong time to leave such an important post vacant. I can't think of a good reason for doing so. We recognized the importance of this position and expedited it out of committee and I urge the Senate to move this nomination through as quickly as possible when we return from the recess."
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Olson is headed to Pakistan prior to his confirmation. In fact, he will not go to Pakistan until he is confirmed.
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.