President’s Pakistan Aid Plan Represents Dramatic Shift

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

food-aid-pakistan.jpgIncreasing long-term economic and development aid to Pakistan is a key component of the combined Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy President Obama announced last week. Aid would “focus on long-term capacity building, on agricultural sector job creation, education and training, and on infrastructure requirements,” funded by $7.5 billion over five years as proposed by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). This shift in focus and resource allocation represents a dramatic shift in the United States’ traditional relations with Pakistan, aimed at establishing a long-term partnership with a democratic Pakistan rather than a transactional security relationship with military dictators. The United States has repeatedly cozied up to authoritarian Pakistani generals like Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf to serve U.S. security interests, only to find itself shocked –- shocked -– that these generals play double games by dealing with militants and developing nuclear weapons.

Congress must be wary of repeating this pattern as it considers President Obama’s request to pass the proposed Kerry-Lugar legislation. With Pakistan fitfully democratizing while facing a growing militancy problem, the United States once again will appear like it is bailing on Pakistan once the generals have supposedly served its interests if the Kerry-Lugar proposal fails. Still, Congresspersons like Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) have expressed quite legitimate skepticism over the aid package endorsed by President Obama, stating he did not “have a lot of confidence in Pakistan being a solution to the problems in Afghanistan… I don’t think [aid is] effective unless the recipient of the support sees where the threat is to them.”

While Levin’s reservations are reasonable, especially given the Pakistani government’s repeated double games with and capitulations to militants, they remain couched in a transactional view of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “If I thought we could buy stability, I would buy it,” Levin explained, “I have no reluctance in purchasing stability if it’s effective.” But the point of the Obama strategy is to move away from a purely transactional relationship largely with the Pakistani military and toward a long-term partnership with the Pakistani population. Performance conditions should be placed on military aid, but economic and development assistance should not be viewed through the lens of the historically transactional relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

Senator Levin’s criticisms may ultimately be misplaced in my view, but there are other concerns about economic and development aid to Pakistan that the Obama team needs to address. While I think they’ve got the right idea, there are operational questions that still need answers, such as how much impact U.S. assistance will have in comparison to aid from countries like China or remittances from Pakistanis abroad. It’s true that the proposed aid to Pakistan will fall short of remittances sent back to Pakistan – in 2004-05, Pakistanis living overseas sent $4.1 billion, and before the financial meltdown of fall 2008 Pakistan expected $7 billion in remittances last year. Even with the lower figure, remittances will still nearly triple U.S. assistance (Between 30 and 40 percent of remittances come from Pakistanis in the United States). For its part, China funded a $200 million port in Gwardar, provided a $500 million loan for the Pakistani government last year, and conducted $6 billion in bilateral trade. Finally, Pakistan received $5.3 billion in foreign direct investment in 2007 alone (though this amount appears to be a spike). So while the Kerry-Lugar package is substantial, it’s far from the only source of foreign funds in town.

Just as important as the size of U.S. economic and development aid to Pakistan is how it’s used. President Obama and Senator Kerry have outlined worthwhile goals, but more work needs to be done on implementation -– making sure the money we appropriate gets spent in the right way and delivers tangible benefits to average Pakistanis. Oversight and accountability will be key to making sure aid doesn’t line the pockets of the military or corrupt government officials. The fact that Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, is known as “Mr. 10 Percent” due to accusations of $1.5 billion of corruption should be enough to give anyone pause. More importantly, the United States needs to make sure U.S. funds don’t wind up in the hands of terrorist groups who use charities as front organizations, as happened (with the assistance of the Musharraf government) following the 2005 earthquake. As a first principle, aid should go to secular organizations aimed at building democratic governance rather than religiously-based relief organizations. In addition, a “Special Inspector General for Pakistan Aid” along the lines of the Special Inspectors General for Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction would be an excellent idea for an enterprising congressperson.

Congress is right on principle to criticize and question President Obama’s aid plan for Pakistan; constructive improvements will come no other way. Members of Congress should receive firm plans and ideas from the administration as to how the United States will operationalize this aid, and what checks and balances will be put into place to make sure our aid doesn’t wind up in the wrong hands. But criticism shouldn’t be directed at the overall thrust of Obama’s strategy for a long-term partnership with the Pakistani people. The move away from the failed transactional security relationship should be welcomed.