Terms of Engagement

Our Money in Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke is getting serious blowback for his efforts to radically reshape U.S. aid programs in South Asia's most dangerous state. But maybe he's onto something.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Of the many levers Obama administration officials have installed on the mighty console that is AfPak strategy, the one to which the least attention has been paid is almost certainly the civilian assistance program in Pakistan. If journalists are embedding with USAID operatives in the vast, Taliban-plagued province of Baluchistan, not many of us have heard about it. And yet senior U.S. officials, most prominently Vice President Joe Biden, regularly note that Pakistan, with its 180 million people and nuclear stockpile, matters to the United States far more than Afghanistan. Thanks in no small part to Biden, who pushed legislation to massively increase civilian aid, Congress last fall passed the so-called Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorizing the expenditure of $7.5 billion in Pakistan over the next five years. Nowhere else does so much hang on the success or failure of development assistance.

And in few other places has the United States spent so much money so thoughtlessly in the past. In The Idea of Pakistan, historian Stephen P. Cohen concludes that decades of U.S. aid strengthened the hand of Pakistan’s Army without making it pro-American and had economic consequences no less ambiguous, bolstering elites and self-appointed middlemen. And just as White Houses in the past had given Pakistan’s rulers lavish rewards for support in the Cold War, so George W. Bush’s administration gave the country’s military $10 billion in barely supervised funds in exchange for pledges of support in the war on terror — pledges that were honored more in the breach than in observance. Bribery is one rationale for foreign aid — Hans Morgenthau, that pitiless realist, argued that it was the only sound rationale — but not when the party in question refuses to stay bribed.

Bribery, in any case, is no longer enough. The AfPak strategy constitutes a recognition that U.S. national security now depends upon producing internal change in states — the kind of change development assistance (as opposed to, say, regime change) is designed to bring about. One of the least plausible aspects of that strategy is the expectation, in Afghanistan, that the "civilian surge" will have begun making a difference by the time U.S. troops begin to draw down, in mid-2011. The Pakistan policy requires no such short-term miracle; indeed, the five-year time frame of Kerry-Lugar-Berman is meant to signal to Pakistanis that the U.S. commitment will not be episodic, as it has been in the past.

The money will start flowing in the next few months, and when it does, it will look very different from the aid program of recent years. Congress has earmarked $3.5 billion for "high impact, high visibility infrastructure programs" — power plants, highways, water treatment facilities, and the like. In recent decades, aid dogma has focused on "capacity building" rather than the building of things. Now it’s China that constructs dams and railroads in Africa (and Pakistan) — and gets the credit for it. Leaving aside the respective merits of these two approaches, people can see the effect of dams a lot more easily than they can the effects of "technical assistance." When Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, first began traveling around the country, he and his team got an "earful," according to a State Department official, from Pakistanis who said that U.S. aid was effectively invisible. "Our aid was not supporting our political objectives," he told me. That is, it wasn’t making a dent in the overwhelming hostility that many citizens feel toward the United States, which is a huge handicap in persuading Pakistan to confront the militants.

But will building big things that make people’s lives better really improve the United States’ image in Pakistan? Doing so hasn’t done much good in Egypt, where no one seems to thank America for the roads it has built and the electricity it has provided. (More than 60 percent of Egyptians — and 90 percent of Pakistanis — said in a poll last summer that the United States abuses its power to "make us do what the U.S. wants.") Anti-Americanism in much of the Islamic world is structural: Leaders enhance their shaky legitimacy by lashing out at Uncle Sam, and people eager for a scapegoat find one in the United States (or Israel). American policy, or American aid practices, serves as a handy pretext. Still, it is in the U.S. interest to remove that pretext as far as possible: Let’s build some power plants and see what happens.


The other thing Holbrooke heard was, "You never ask us what we need; you just do these programs that you think we ought to have." This is a longstanding lament, and both the Kerry-Lugar bill and the administration’s AfPak strategy stipulate that Pakistanis will play a much larger role in choosing, executing, and monitoring projects than they do now. In part because improving relations with Pakistan is so central to his job, Holbrooke immediately began rejecting contracts USAID had drawn up with U.S. contractors. That didn’t sit well with some; a senior USAID official, C. Stuart Callison, wrote an anguished memo to Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department, claiming that the new policy was "shockingly counterproductive" and would subordinate development goals to political considerations.

Political considerations, in a way, are just the point. Aid that harms America’s standing — because Pakistanis see it as highhanded — is a bad idea even if it works. But it’s also true, as Callison wrote, that aid policies that don’t produce real change inside Pakistan scarcely advance President Barack Obama’s overall counterinsurgency goals. Can America do both? Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a real state, a real middle class, a real civil society. But it’s hard to find independent actors in so deeply feudal a society. Brian Katulis, a regional expert at the Center for American Progress, says that though going through local NGOs and local government bodies is "the right instinct," he’s skeptical that U.S. officials will be able to navigate the political interests of local players to choose people who will actually perform.

Holbrooke is prepared to err on the side of Pakistani engagement. How, after all, can you build local capacity unless you ask people to take responsibility? More to the point, this is what it means to incorporate development assistance into larger foreign-policy goals: If Obama is to overcome the terrible failure of trust with Pakistan, he must not treat Pakistanis as hapless objects of American charity. Pakistan, as the State Department official noted, "has forced a serious re-evaluation of the relevance of aid to our foreign-policy objectives."

Whatever the United States was doing before didn’t work for Pakistan, and didn’t work for America. Clearly, it’s time to try something else. The danger, though, is that Holbrooke will find a way of helping the U.S. image in Pakistan, and thus advance key national security goals, without really producing change inside the country. Perhaps, therefore, Pakistan should force the United States to re-evaluate aid policy even further. Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, argued in a recent op-ed that aid will continue to fortify Pakistan’s deeply entrenched elites unless the United States finds an entirely new way of delivering it; she proposed inviting a wide array of groups and individuals to bid for aid projects, much as the Obama administration is now doing in the education world with its $4.3 billion grant program known as Race to the Top.

A more far-reaching proposal comes from the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank that has proposed (pdf) that funders sign contracts with recipient states in which both sides agree on a specific desired outcome — say, increasing the reach of basic health services by a fixed percentage — and then the donor leaves the government wholly free to reach the outcome in any way it sees fit. The donor begins to pay only when the government begins to show results. (A mutually-agreed-upon third party audits the recipient’s progress.) "Cash on delivery aid," as authors Nancy Birdsall and William D. Savedoff have dubbed the idea, offers accountability for donors, autonomy for recipients, and transparency for citizens of both countries. A corrupt or incompetent government — Pakistan’s, for example — could fail to hold up its end of the bargain. But are Americans really prepared to hand over scarce resources to such a state — even if doing so helps their image?


James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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