July 24, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Foreign Assistance to Pakistan: An End to the Embrace?

As of late-July 2012, it would be easy with hindsight to conclude that the Bush Administration was woefully inattentive to the uses being made of U.S. aid funds to Pakistan in the seven years following the 9/11 attacks. That event had triggered an overnight transformation in Washington's relationship with Islamabad: sweeping U.S. sanctions related to that Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests and 1999 military coup were quickly waived, and within weeks an infusion of US$600 million was delivered for the purpose of cementing General Pervez Musharraf's cooperation with the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in neighboring Afghanistan.


U.S.-Pakistan "Marriage Vows" Are Renewed

Needing Pakistan's support for the war in Afghanistan, as well as for efforts to eradicate al Qaeda in the region, the U.S. Congress went on to approve nearly US $5.5 billion in direct military and economic aid to Pakistan from 2002 to 2008. Added to this were little-known "coalition support funds" (CSF) from the Pentagon budget — ostensibly reimbursements for Pakistan's logistical and operational support for OEF — that totaled another US $7 billion during that period. These transfers were implemented with scant oversight for many years and went straight into Pakistan's national treasury, which, in a military dictatorship, means they invariably ended up in the army's pockets.

By the time Pakistani elections seated a civilian government and Musharraf exited the political stage in 2008, the Afghan Taliban had regrouped — thanks in large part to the safe havens it enjoyed in western Pakistan and likely support from that country's intelligence agencies — and the Pakistani military was facing its own growing Islamist insurgency in the tribal areas. At the same time, Pakistan's economic and social indicators were uniformly pointing in the wrong direction. In short, the goals of U.S. assistance were even more out-of-reach than they had been in 2002.

The U.S. Congress was slow to recognize the now obvious mistake of trusting Musharraf and his security services to work on behalf of U.S. interests in the region. No meaningful conditions had been placed on aid in the early years and those that were legislated in mid-decade mainly sought to ensure that military aid was directed exclusively toward counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts (and was not spent by Pakistan to gain conventional capabilities to use vis-à-vis India). Yet, in the latter years of Bush's second term, Congress did enact provisions meant to improve oversight, as well as to require that the Administration formally report on progress in Islamabad's counterterrorism and democratization efforts. Meanwhile, Pentagon auditors more carefully scrutinized Pakistan's CSF requests.


Enhancing the Strategic Partnership

While serving as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008, current Vice President Joe Biden pushed hard for the U.S. government to make a long-term commitment to improving the welfare of the Pakistani people as a means of demonstrating that the United States would be a reliable ally not solely interested in engaging Pakistani generals. To this end, his staff, along with that of his committee's Ranking Member, Richard Lugar and then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, wrote country-specific legislation to "enhance" the bilateral partnership by tripling levels of nonmilitary aid for a period of at least five years, as well as instituting rigorous conditions for the continued flow of security aid. Most notably, Congress required the Secretary of State to annually certify that Pakistan was fully cooperative on counterterrorism and nonproliferation, and that its military was not interfering in politics.

Although the "Biden-Lugar" bill was not voted upon in the 110th Congress, it did have the support of then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among many others. Only months after Senator Biden was succeeded by Senator John Kerry, the Enhanced Partnership With Pakistan Act of 2009 — or "KLB bill" for its main sponsors — was passed by both chambers and signed into law by President Obama. The Administration's two top envoys to the region, Secretary of State Clinton and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, were boosters of the policy and set about implementing it while endeavoring to convince Pakistanis that Washington would be with them for the long haul.

Because no Congress wants to be beholden to those that preceded it, the KLB law only authorized, rather than actually appropriated, US $1.5 billion in annual nonmilitary aid for FY2010-FY2014. Still, its enactment did lead to a major boost in such assistance, even as large chunks were reprogrammed for disaster relief in the wake of Pakistan's devastating mid-2010 floods. Secretary Clinton issued the first (and, to date, only) KLB certification in March 2011. This was met with considerable skepticism even before the bin Laden discovery. That revelation combined with other bilateral shocks — such as NATO's accidental November 2011 killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers and Pakistan's subsequent closure of U.S supply routes into Afghanistan — to silence the already outnumbered supporters of Pakistan inside the Beltway.


Whither the Strategic Embrace?

It was not until July 2012 that Pakistan agreed to reopen NATO's land access to Afghanistan. In taking the original action to close the routes, Islamabad had played its main trump card in relations with Washington, infuriating many U.S. officials and further poisoning American perceptions. Meanwhile, the interim also saw a Pakistani court sentence a Pakistani doctor to 33 years imprisonment, purportedly for aiding extremists, but more likely for his role in assisting the covert U.S. effort search for bin Laden. The "optics" of this development were hugely damaging to the notion that Pakistan was an authentic and reliable U.S. ally and led to even more anger in the U.S. Congress.

American lawmakers placed significant new limits and restrictions on how much and what types of aid could go to Pakistan in FY2012, but the amounts appropriated were mostly unchanged. Not so in the current cycle; active appropriations bills would drastically reduce assistance to Pakistan for FY2013, and in mid-July the House amended the defense authorization to cut CSF payments by half. New and even harsher conditions are also appearing in legislation, and it's highly unlikely that the Obama Administration would be able to justify another KLB certification in the current atmosphere (assuming it would even have an interest in doing so).

Clearly, both Washington and Islamabad share a keen interest in an array of critical strategic interests. Arguably foremost among these would be achieving enduring stability in a nuclear-capable Pakistan, followed closely by peaceful relations between Pakistan and India, and suppressing the endemic terrorist threat in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. With often heated dispute over the best course for achieving such ends, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan might be best described as one torn apart by shared interests.

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