Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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The Debate over U.S. Aid to Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
May 18, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds talks with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Islamabad, July 19, 2010 (Adrees Latif/Courtesy Reuters).

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan on May 2, U.S.-Pakistan relations—already fraught—are experiencing new tensions. Senator John Kerry, the administration’s go-to guy on Pakistan, was in Islamabad earlier this week telling Pakistani leaders that Washington wants to hit the “reset button.” The two sides are also publicly bickering over U.S. military support, with Washington rejecting 40 percent of the claims that Pakistan has recently submitted for compensation for military operations against extremists.

Since 2001, Pakistan has received nearly $20 billion from the United States, some two thirds of that as military assistance. The other one third has been directed to development initiatives and humanitarian relief.  (See recent accounting from the Congressional Research Service and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.) Americans rightly wonder what they have received in return, especially as questions linger about the Pakistani intelligence service’s role in sheltering bin Laden and supporting other extremist groups, and as anti-American sentiments in Pakistan reach new heights.

Should “reset” actually mean disengage? Doling out large amounts of foreign assistance to any country is not popular right now, given Washington’s own budgetary woes. Handing it over to our “frenemy” Pakistan has even less support today. CFR.org recently asked several experts whether the United States should continue its aid to Pakistan. In my take, I argue that while remaining engaged is challenging, walking away would be worse. We should be realistic in understanding how U.S. and Pakistani military and security interests diverge, and Washington should shift the balance of its assistance away from military support and into areas such as economic reform, energy, and education—especially girls’ education. Pakistan remains a country with huge potential to drag itself and the region deeper into conflict and misery—and its people have huge needs. The country’s under-five mortality rate in 2009, according to the World Bank, was 87 per 1,000 children—the same rate as Haiti and only slightly less than Zimbabwe’s. In 2008, just 56 percent of Pakistanis over age 15 could read. For women, only 40 percent are literate. Energy scarcity is another pressing issue. During my visit last October, rolling brown-outs interrupted meetings in Karachi and Lahore, and business leaders bemoaned their loss of contracts due to an unstable supply of electricity. Progress on some of these problems would bring long-term benefits both for the Pakistani people and for U.S. interests. The United States simply cannot ignore Pakistan, despite (indeed, because of) its many problems.

The other experts agreed that Pakistan is too strategically important and dangerous for the United States to cut off assistance. Candace Putnam, CFR’s Cyrus Vance fellow in diplomatic studies, argued that Pakistani action is needed to pursue terrorists, keep its nuclear arsenal safe, and maintain a vital supply line for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. A failed Pakistan would affect the entire region and, as she noted, “America has cut off aid before, with disastrous results.” Hassan Abbas of the Asia Society came out the same way, concluding that U.S. interests, along with moral considerations, demand continued assistance. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute argued against an abrupt aid cut-off, but favored reducing U.S. assistance and refocusing it to bolster “those areas of civil society, the private sector, and government most inclined to initiate political reforms and long-term economic growth.” Continued military aid, Weinbaum argued, should be conditional. The entire round-up is a good snapshot of this important debate. Two more of my CFR colleagues, Dan Markey and Steve Biddle, have also weighed in on CFR director of studies Jim Lindsay’s blog, The Water’s Edge. Finally, I recommend a recent blog post by Nancy Birdsall and two colleagues at the Center for Global Development that makes a case for maintaining the U.S. commitment to Pakistan.

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  • Posted by sharma

    USE IT OR LOSE IT.

    The consensus among experts sounds more like “group think” than objective and rational analysis of what is in America’s national interest.

    It is a good example of the extraordinary inertia that can develop in an establishment. This inertia has led to a wasted decade of poor strategic advice, loss of thousands of American soldiers lives, loss of over a trillion dollars, and ultimately the weakening and decline of a superpower.

    The inability of this small group of experts and think tanks with adequate knowledge of South Asia to simply look at the problem of Pakistan, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation objectively has done enormous damage to U.S. power and secondarily empowered China. China strengthens the argument in favor of authoritarianism and weakens the forces for democracy. If America does not use its power to fight terrorists and to promote democracy, it will lose its moral authority and power.

    It is disheartening to read this consensus among experts on Pakistan to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. This is jokingly called the definition of insanity, but in this case is a great example of intellectual inertia in the American foreign policy establishment.

    One question that all these expert should answer honestly: What would you have advised President Obama about executing a secret raid deep into Pakistan to get Bin Laden? My feeling is that the orthodoxy would have given the same tired advise on Pakistan. We have heard these trite arguments many times.
    Thank you President Obama for demonstrating strategic vision, moral clarity, and bold leadership. We can all learn from him.

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