Don’t Cut Civilian Aid to Pakistan

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Don’t Cut Civilian Aid to Pakistan

As the Republican-controlled House advances its legislative agenda, U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan looks likely to be one of the early casualties. In addition to new conditions on assistance to Pakistan, approved by two House panels, White House officials expect that the overall aid package is likely to shrink as well. But before lawmakers cut aid to Islamabad, they should consider the role it plays in realizing long-term U.S. interests.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, more commonly known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act, tripled financial assistance to Pakistan’s civilian institutions by pledging $1.5 billion annually for five years. The aid program is premised on the assumption that a stable, well-governed Pakistan is in the long-term interests of the United States. Strengthening Pakistani governance, it follows, requires bolstering elected, civilian rule. In the past the U.S. relied on an exclusive partnership with the Pakistani military at the expense of its relationship with other Pakistani institutions; Kerry-Lugar-Berman seeks to overcome this legacy.

This vision of U.S.-Pakistan relations has suffered deep setbacks over the past two years. Islamabad’s refusal to hunt down Afghan militant groups has constantly fueled diplomatic tensions. The discovery in March that Osama bin Laden was comfortably ensconced in a major Pakistani military town — and Washington’s decision to capture him without informing Islamabad — sent relations into a tailspin. In Washington, the momentum behind taking punitive action against Pakistan has grown stronger with each act of omission or commission — and the civilian aid program is an easy target for an impatient Congress.

Pakistan’s criticism of the aid program has further stoked congressional ire. When Kerry-Lugar-Berman was signed into law, Pakistan’s right wing and the country’s ubiquitous intelligence agencies orchestrated a media outrage campaign that made U.S. foreign assistance politically radioactive. Pakistan’s security institutions have become accustomed to unrivaled domestic dominance; they have little desire to see the emergence of a competing civilian powerbase, a key objective of the legislation. As a result, the Pakistani debate about American foreign assistance has been influenced by the claim that the U.S. seeks to purchase influence through civilian assistance, rather than focusing on how aid inflows can be used to address pressing governance and development challenges.

Yet the U.S. should not let Pakistan’s dysfunctional politics, or the perception of Pakistani ingratitude, obscure the fact that the rationale for maintaining civilian assistance to Pakistan is stronger than ever. The Pakistani state’s grip over its territory has loosened considerably since 2009. A virulent insurgency is exploiting glaring governance gaps by attacking soft targets across major metropolitan centers. Without strong civilian governance by elected political leaders and empowered bureaucrats, the writ of the Pakistani state will continue to shrink and the geographic space for terrorist sanctuaries will expand.

Pakistan does not need Swiss-level governance, but it does need institutions capable of maintaining law and order and providing essential services. In particular, Pakistan needs an effective and dedicated police force, courts that can dispense appropriate sentences to insurgents, and provincial officials who possess the authority and resources to execute sustained counterterrorism campaigns. Essential investments in infrastructure, electricity generation and water supplies are also critical to cope with Pakistan’s burgeoning population. Without a deep and enduring financial investment in Pakistan’s civilian institutions, instability and terrorism will continue to rise.

Kerry-Lugar-Berman envisions the necessity of such an investment, but it has not been given an opportunity to fulfill its promise. The inevitable limitations of large, cumbersome bureaucracies have slowed down aid disbursement. Furthermore, last summer’s devastating floods forced a wholesale re-evaluation of supported projects in Pakistan and further slowed the rate of aid flow into the country. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, of the annual $1.5 billion in American foreign assistance, less than $200 million was disbursed in 2010. The aid program needs more time before Pakistani civilians and U.S. policymakers will be able to discern its full benefits.

Of course, one can support civilian leaders in Pakistan without subscribing to any illusions about them. Pakistan’s elected leaders are far from committed democrats: They run feudal, personality-based political parties, and when in power, they constantly try to undermine competitors by breaking the rules of the democratic game. Yet for all its limitations, civilian rule is infinitely preferable to rule by the military. Since the 2008 elections, crucial democratic reforms — such as the devolution of powers from the central government to the provinces — have been passed, despite a dizzying succession of political and economic crises. These reforms, if properly implemented and resourced, have the potential to significantly strengthen Pakistan’s democracy. And even if they only partially succeed, they represent the fruits of an imperfect, patronage-driven, but nonetheless genuinely deliberative political process.

Most important from Washington’s perspective, as the national government grows in strength and legitimacy over the long term, its influence on foreign and national security policy, currently monopolized by the Pakistani army, will increase. The end result of this process is by no means certain, but the alternatives are either to rely exclusively on a relationship with the military, a policy that has failed to end links between the Pakistani state and militant groups, or to move to isolate and contain a frail and failing Pakistan, a prospect none can be sanguine about.

This article was published by World Politics Review on August 15, 2011. Read here (Subscription required)