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WASHINGTON — Even as Pentagon officials continued to call Pakistan a key to long-term stability in southwest Asia, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week openly questioned if too much attention — and money — is being paid to Afghanistan’s problematic neighbor.

"I just don’t have confidence in Pakistan being a solution to the challenges in Afghanistan," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. and chairman of the committee, told reporters Monday. "I think they’re part of the problem, and I think they’ll continue to be."

Last week President Barack Obama called Pakistan "indispensable to our effort in Afghanistan" and announced plans to send more trainers and $7.5 billion in aid to the country in the next five years, to help them fight insurgent groups in tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

At a Wednesday hearing before the committee Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, called Pakistan a critical piece in securing Afghanistan, and said their military’s counter-insurgency efforts and cooperation with NATO intelligence in recent months has been an encouraging sign.

But he acknowledged that considerable work still has to be done before the country can be seen as a reliable ally.

"All of our efforts are dependent on [the Pakistan government] recognizing that their biggest threat are these internal groups and not their neighbor to the east (India)," he said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said she believes that change has already begun. Recent suicide bombings, coupled with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, have shifted Pakistani opinion against the insurgent groups.

"These are really starting to have an impact, not just with leadership but with the Pakistani public," she said.

But Levin said he still doubts they will completely make that shift in the near future, noting that previous U.S. efforts haven’t worked.

And he expressed anger in continued reports of links between Taliban fighters and Pakistani military forces. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned increasing intelligence sharing with Pakistan in light of those reports.

"These are close and troubling ties," she said. "How do we know [information] won’t fall into the hands of the wrong individuals?"

Petraeus acknowledged those concerns, but said the country is too closely tied to Afghanistan’s future not to try and improve relations.

"We’ll have to go through that process and rebuild some of this trust," he told lawmakers.

Lisa Curtis, senior fellow at the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation, said the close ties between enemy fighters and elements of the Pakistani military are a frustrating reality for U.S. officials who have worked to build up that country as an ally for the past eight years.

"There’s no easy solution with Pakistan … but saying that the futures of Afghanistan and Pakistan aren’t linked flies in the face of reality," she said. "And certainly, we can’t stay on the same track we’ve been on, because it won’t work."

Curtis said she’s encouraged by Obama’s plans to link future aid to Pakistan to benchmarks for that country as well, requiring certification that progress in being made in fighting insurgents to continue the flow of funds and equipment.

Flournoy told lawmakers that those metrics will be crucial, and that defense officials will be ready to react if Pakistan doesn’t live up to expectations.

"We need to test the proposition … but we also need to be closely measuring their performance," she told the senators.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, called the plan "a leap of faith that we’re going to have to take."

"I don’t think the Pakistani establishment has done enough … but there is so much more room for them to demonstrate they are committed to stability in the region," he said. "So they need to improve, but there have already been some improvements."

Levin said he wasn’t completely opposed to increasing aid to Pakistan, but said he would prefer more evidence and stricter progress reports tied to the money.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said he worries that the government "has no real incentive to cooperate with NATO" because past indiscretions haven’t resulted in any punishments.

But both Petraeus and Flournoy said they believe some of the Pakistan government’s recent actions — negotiations not to engage certain Taliban strongholds along the border, for example — have been prompted by concerns about the United States’ long-term commitment in the region.

"Only a serious and sustained engagement by the international community can help Pakistan make the required changes," Flournoy said.

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