The Politics of Aid: Controversy Surrounds the Pakistan Aid Bill

  • photo courtesy of United States Marine Corps Official Page
    Oct 19, 2009

    The recent controversy created by the passing of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, informally known as Kerry-Lugar, provides a window into the challenges surrounding attempts to forge a new relationship with the people and government of Pakistan. The bill, which triples U.S. nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan from $400 million to $1.5 billion annually for the next five years, has been largely criticized in Pakistan, with the press and political parties claiming that it is “less an assistance program than a treaty of surrender.” The outcry in Pakistan has been so strong that, before President Obama signed the bill on October 15, Congress issued a joint explanatory statement clarifying “that the legislation does not seek in any way to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty.” Many Americans are confused as to why an aid package that is intended to provide desperately needed assistance to Pakistan is being greeted with such scorn.

    Q1: What are Pakistanis saying about the bill?

    A1: In the Pakistani media, arguments against the bill range from the sensational to the reasonable, with the former comprising the majority. Analysts and politicians in Pakistan predict dire consequences if the bill is accepted in its current form, claiming that it will “bind Pakistan to America in a manner and to the extent that has never existed before.” But amidst the hysteria are voices of genuine concern: the language of the bill can be perceived as didactic and offensive.

    • On terrorism: The conditions in the final bill are much stronger than the text of the original House and Senate versions. For instance, the bill states that Pakistan must show that it is “ceasing support” for terrorists, “dismantling terrorist bases,” and “closing terrorist camps.” The acceptance of this condition amounts to an acknowledgement by Pakistan that it was supporting terrorists in the first place. Compare this condition to the milder one in the earlier Senate version, which simply stated that Pakistan should demonstrate it was “making concerted efforts” to combat terrorist groups. Indeed, when it comes to national sensitivities, the details matter, and the details in the bill have been the rallying cry of those who oppose it.
    • On India: The bill also states that Pakistan must prevent groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed from carrying out attacks on “neighboring countries.” This provision is none other than a reference to preventing terrorism in India. In an aid bill intended for Pakistan’s development, mentioning India’s national security is seen as evidence of a perceived U.S. bias toward India.
    • On nuclear access: Similarly, the bill demands “relevant information from or direct access to” Pakistani citizens who are found to be associated with nuclear supply networks. The Pakistani position on this matter has been clear to the United States from the start: we will clamp down on nuclear proliferation networks on our own but will not give you access to violators. The anger behind the criticism of the bill in Pakistan is related not so much to what is being said—it is in Pakistan’s own interest to curb terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation—but over who is saying it and how.

    Q2: Who is maneuvering the debate?

    A2: Even if some of the language in the bill is construed as offensive, the underlying reasons for such sharp opposition run much deeper. Much of the criticism has roots in political opportunism and other domestic motivations. Opposition political parties in particular are having a field day, claiming that the already unpopular and weak civilian government has sold out to the United States, and are using the situation to create media hype throughout the country. As the role and reach of the media in Pakistan has expanded exponentially, it has become an essential tool in influencing public opinion. Pakistani politicians have proven adept at utilizing the media to create a brouhaha when an interesting debate arises, as is the case with Kerry-Lugar.

    While opposition parties in Pakistan continue to butt heads with the establishment, it is the Pakistani army’s position on the matter that has really pushed the government to reassess the bill. The army is angry about a clause that specifies an American assessment of the extent to which the government of Pakistan exercises effective civilian control of the military. This assessment would include “a description of the extent to which civilian executive leaders and parliament exercise oversight and approval of military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration.” The army argues that these demands interfere with Pakistan’s sovereignty and that the army is far more meritocratic than the often corrupt civilian government. In addition, it sees the bill as an attempt to prop up a weak civilian government at the direct expense of the army. In fact, the military and those on the right view the bill as a deliberate strategic attempt by United States to weaken the Pakistani army and intelligence agency, which they believe are the last bulwarks with the ability to prevent U.S. expansion plans in the region. Given that the aid bill was drafted with Pakistani counterparts, the bill may in fact represent the Pakistani government’s attempt to contain the military.

    Q3: How has the controversy affected Pakistani attitudes toward the United States?

    A3: The bill has intensified the prevailing attitude of mistrust of the United States among ordinary Pakistanis. Rumors abound that the bill is merely an excuse for the United States to have a greater footprint in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the United States has made plans for a larger embassy in Islamabad, which would employ over 1,000 people, and use a private American company called DynCorp for embassy security. Pakistanis worry that companies such as DynCorp will play the role of military and intelligence agencies for the United States. These allegations are mounting, particularly as reports of the presence of the notorious private security firm, Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, are surfacing in remote parts of Pakistan. Pakistanis are concerned that America’s presence in Pakistan will soon resemble that in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Q4: Taking Kerry-Lugar forward?

    A4: The Pakistani government has been defending the bill, while also trying to appease the military and the public. The U.S. government, which was initially unaware of the extent of the unpopularity of the aid bill, has reassessed the situation. As a result, Obama delayed signing the bill until Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry held a joint press conference with House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman and Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to release an unusual explanatory statement clarifying that “any interpretation of this act which suggests that the United States does not fully recognize and respect the sovereignty of Pakistan would be directly contrary to congressional intent.” The joint statement is likely to appease the military. The opposition political parties are continuing to raise objections, but other issues will soon distract them. The storm is dying out. What will remain are important lessons for the United States on engaging with Pakistan. Establishing a relationship of mutual respect and trust is the premise of the new administration’s policy in Pakistan, but a history of mistakes and mistrust will not make this easy. The aid bill is a genuine chance at a new beginning: if the people of Pakistan see aid money coming in and making a real impact on development, they will finally see the United States as a friend and a benefactor. Certainly then, Kerry-Lugar is crucial legislation for improving the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and promoting stability and security in the South Asia region.

    Shiza Shahid is an intern and Karin von Hippel the codirector of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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