Last week in Pakistan, Taliban insurgents offered a glimpse at our nightmare, staging a suicide attack on a bus carrying workers from a Pakistani nuclear enrichment facility in Rawalpindi. While none of the 30 wounded workers were high-level scientists, the attack signaled that the Taliban know well where the country's nuclear facilities are located, and that they can terrorize the people who work in them. Next time, perhaps, they will capture and interrogate these people.

The episode was a reminder that Pakistan's stability remains an urgent crisis for the Obama administration, and that a new military offensive in southern Afghanistan is hardly enough to solve the problem. Indeed, when Barack Obama delivered his March address about Pakistan and Afghanistan, most news accounts focused on his decision to dispatch an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to the region. But one passage of his address promised something just as important:

A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone. Al Qaeda offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction. We stand for something different. So today, I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years - resources that will build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan 's democracy.... I do not ask for this support lightly. These are challenging times, and resources are stretched. But the American people must understand that this is a down payment on our own future - because the security of our two countries is shared. Pakistan's government must be a stronger partner in destroying these safe-havens, and we must isolate al Qaeda from the Pakistani people.

Since then, however, not a penny of that money has been spent, thanks to a standoff in Congress, one that hinges on the essental and long-running question about what leverage the U.S. really has over Pakistan, and what we can demand from Islamabad in return for our billions of dollars in aid. 

Last month, both the House and Senate passed bills tripling non-military US aid for Pakistan, as Obama requested, to $1.5 billion per year. But the House bill also creates new criteria for continuing $400 million in annual military assistance to Islamabad meant for fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda. The bill, written by House Foreign Affairs Commitee Chairman Howard Berman, is a response to the fact that $11 billion in US aid sent to Pakistan since 9/11 has bought little more than continued political instability and a thriving insurgency. Berman's bill requires that Obama formally certify that Pakistan is making progress in fighting militant groups, cutting off ties between its military intelligence services and the Taliban, and shutting down terrorist camps along its borders. Pakistan would also have to give the US access to Pakistani nationals associated with nuclear proliferation--i.e. A.Q. Khan, although he's not explicitly named in the bill--and to demonstrate "proper oversight of all educational institutions, including madrassas." Most provocatively, perhaps, the House also bars Pakistan from spending any more American aid on its beloved F-16 fighter jet fleet--which, for reasons I recently explained in TNR, is a jab directly at Pakistan's national pride.

The Senate-passed version of an aid bill, produced by John Kerry's Foreign Relations Committee, attaches virtually no conditions on American military spending. That reflects the view that new conditions only foster distrust in Pakistan, which believes America is an unreliable ally, possibly leading Islamabad to hedge its bets and maintain ties to local radicals. As one Senate aide puts it, the Senate bill "has totemic value" in Pakistan as a pledge of America's good faith. "It is the 'reset' button." The Berman bill, by contrast, is routinely trashed in the Pakistani media.

At the moment, the standoff pits Berman against Kerry, with neither one seemingly inclined to yield. But Kerry has Obama on his side. Back in March, Obama declared that American will no longer "provide a blank check" to Pakistan. But now senior Obama officials are coming out strongly against Berman's bill. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, for instance, recently warned that Berman's measure could "severely constrain" America's strategy in Pakistan.

And so it may be that Pakistan once again escapes real accountability for its use of American aid. Which ultimately, isn't terribly shocking. The grim truth is that, at this moment, America has precious little leverage over Pakistan. Cutting off our foreign aid would play into the hands of the insurgents, and risk allowing Pakistan to collapse into a failed state. And so, for better or worse, and despite feel-good assertions to the contrary, the check will likely remain blank, and America will simply have to hope for the best.

--Michael Crowley