The Cable

Who’s to blame for the Pakistan aid bill fiasco?

As the champions of the Pakistan aid bill scramble to put out fires and stem the bleeding caused by the negative media-fueled reactions to the package in Islamabad, behind the scenes, the blame game is underway, and all sides are trying to assess who was responsible for the public-relations failure surrounding the rollout of the ...

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Cliinton meets briefly with Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar during trilateral talks at the State Department February 26, 2009 in Washington, DC. Clinton announced that

As the champions of the Pakistan aid bill scramble to put out fires and stem the bleeding caused by the negative media-fueled reactions to the package in Islamabad, behind the scenes, the blame game is underway, and all sides are trying to assess who was responsible for the public-relations failure surrounding the rollout of the bill.

One school of thought points the finger at the bill’s sponsors, Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry, D-MA, (who may travel to Pakistan shortly), Richard Lugar, R-IN, and former sponsor Vice President Joseph Biden. These critics, many of them on Capitol Hill, lament that the lawmakers may have failed to do the spade work necessary to ensure the package received smooth reception in Islamabad. They also point to the White House, which rushed the Senate into passing the measure in order to announce it at a donor’s conference in September.

Another leading line of thinking among Pakistan watchers places the blame more on the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, and particularly Amb. Hussain Haqqani (shown rubbing his face above during State Department talks in February) and the Washington lobbyists on his payroll, who were involved in crafting the legislation but are seen to have dropped the ball in preparing their own countrymen — and particularly the Pakistani military — for its release, and explaining the conditions on the aid.

Haqqani has also come under fire in the Pakistani press, with anonymous and perhaps maliciously minded sources blaming “individuals and organizations representing Pakistan’s national interest in Washington” for “an attempt to cripple the Pakistan Army and the ISI,” the country’s powerful intelligence service.

In the end, most observers feel that some Pakistani complaining over any increased U.S. role in their country is unavoidable and that the aid package’s rough debut will eventually give way to a positive end result. But the optics of the botched rollout have many in Washington angry and a little bewildered.

“This bill or some version of it has been floating around for at least two years and Biden/Kerry/Lugar didn’t think to call over to Pakistan to see how it would be received?” one GOP source said.

One high-level source confirmed to Foreign Policy that the Pakistani Embassy saw the text of the aid bill in near-complete form. The implication is that the Pakistanis were or should have been aware of the aid conditions, which require the U.S. government to report on the counterterrorism efforts of the Pakistani military and the civilian government’s effective control of those efforts.

The Pakistani military issued a statement Wednesday saying that senior commanders, including the Army chief, “expressed serious concern regarding clauses (of the bill) impacting on national security.”

The conditions in question actually represented a compromise between House and Senate negotiators. The House version had conditioned the release of military assistance on the president’s certification that the Pakistani government “demonstrated a sustained commitment to and made progress towards combating terrorist groups.”

The compromise version states that the president has to certify that Pakistan is “making significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups … including taking into account the extent to which the Government of Pakistan has made progress on matters” related to counterterrorism.

Congressional insiders saw the compromise as a way to preserve the accountability measures that many lawmakers felt were needed (considering what happened to billions already given) while granting the administration and the Pakistanis enough flexibility to set their own policies and still justify continued disbursement of the funds in future years.

Regardless, some on Capitol Hill are now suffering from a large dose of buyer’s remorse after supporting the bill.

One GOP Senate aide said that the White House called on Sept. 24 to press key senators who were holding up the legislation, namely Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, and Tom Coburn, R-OK, to let the bill move forward. They acquiesced but may now regret it.

“The White House pushed on the Senate to pass it by unanimous consent so they would have leveraging power at the donor’s conference and increase our standing with Pakistan,” said the aide, referring to the meeting of the 26-member Friends of Democratic Pakistan. “Looks like neither of those are true.”

Now, the bill is sitting on Obama’s desk waiting to be signed and insiders say he won’t do so until the hubbub in Islamabad calms down. The Pakistani legislature has begun debating the aid package and its endorsement would be helpful, but not absolutely necessary. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also rumored to be planning a trip to Pakistan, but that also won’t happen until Obama signs the aid package into law.

There is also the issue of actually appropriating the money. The $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar bill is only an authorization, meaning that there are no actually funds in it. Yes, $1.57 billion of real money, the first year’s batch, is included in the fiscal 2010 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill, but that legislation is not expected to move anytime soon because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, is said not to be enthusiastic about having a floor debate about the issue ahead of the several other upcoming battles he will have to fight on Obama’s domestic agenda, including healthcare, energy, and Guantánamo Bay.

Experts warn that although U.S. engagement overall is positive, in the end the Pakistanis will have to sort out their own military policies based on their own perceived interests and their own domestic politics.

“The U.S. role is important but largely incidental,” former National Security Council official Bruce Riedel said at the rollout of the Brookings Institution’s new Pakistan index Monday.

“U.S. encouragement, U.S. pressure, U.S. handling, U.S. jawboning probably encouraged the Pakistani establishment and Pakistani Army to do what it’s done in Swat,” Riedel continued, referring to recent Pakistani efforts to retake control of the Swat Valley from the local branch of the Taliban.

“But at the end of the day the government of Pakistan did these things because it’s in Pakistan’s national interest, and in particular in the survival instincts of the Zardari government and its current relationship with the Pakistani Army,” Riedel said.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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