Stop Writing Pakistan Blank Checks

Billions of taxpayer dollars spent on development assistance have propped up the most repressive elements in Pakistani society. So it's time to alter the deal.


On Feb. 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, plans to block the Barack Obama administration from financing the sale of up to eight F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Corker observed that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is “complicated and imperfect,” and that although cooperation has achieved “some of our interests,” Pakistan remains a “duplicitous partner, moving sideways rather than forward in resolving regional challenges.” Corker was particularly angered by Pakistan’s persistent support to the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban.

Corker’s decision is no mere lonely move by a maverick legislator. It is a bellwether of widespread and growing frustration with Pakistan on Capitol Hill. The time has come to mend, if not end, U.S. assistance to Pakistan.

While Corker’s conclusions are essentially valid, his blanket hold on U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Pakistan is only a stopgap measure. FMF in each of the past five years has averaged nearly $300 million. In addition, since 2001, Washington has reimbursed over $13 billion in Coalition Support Funds and provided some $9 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan between 2002 and 2014. Corker’s move is unlikely to resolve the widespread confusion — in Washington and Islamabad alike — over U.S. aims and expectations for assistance programming in Pakistan.

Mending U.S. assistance to Pakistan requires a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach for precisely the reasons that Corker notes: The countries continue to share both overlapping and diverging interests with this nuclear-armed nation of nearly 200 million people. Washington should keep the following points in mind as it reconsiders assistance to Pakistan.

First, Washington should be careful not to overestimate the leverage generated by U.S. assistance. It has learned this lesson through its long experience in Pakistan. Despite tens of billions of dollars in aid since 9/11, Islamabad still does not see the world through the United States’ preferred strategic prism — whether in Afghanistan, India, or on the issue of nuclear proliferation. Then again, history also shows that U.S. sanctions on Pakistan throughout the 1990s failed to curtail Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, the political dominance of its military, or the state’s support to terrorist groups like the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba that have engulfed the region in violence. Aid is no panacea. Neither are sanctions.

Second, U.S. assistance is never delivered in a vacuum; its political effects must be assessed in a broader context. For instance, U.S. lawmakers should not be surprised that billions of dollars in development assistance over the past decade failed to win Pakistani “hearts and minds,” when the arrival of that money coincided with a massive surge in violence at least partly caused by the U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Similarly, Sen. Corker’s threat to hold up FMF until Pakistan turns against the Haqqani network is only the latest wrinkle in the long, complicated saga of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its associated dealings with Pakistan. Unfortunately, that saga is full of mixed messages being sent from Washington to Islamabad. Right now, U.S. officials are not simply using assistance as coercive leverage to force Pakistan to fight the Haqqanis; they are also asking for Pakistan’s help to facilitate a “reconciliation dialogue” with all factions of the Afghan insurgency (including the Haqqanis). These mixed messages come at a time of deep Pakistani doubts about the future of America’s commitment to Afghanistan’s struggling government and security forces. Under such circumstances, Pakistan’s decisions about how to manage relations with the Haqqanis will surely be influenced by many factors beyond U.S. aid.

Third, Pakistan is a high-stakes game for the United States. Washington should steer clear of risky policy moves — including threats to curtail assistance and reimbursements — unless they hold the realistic promise of significant gains. Washington must appreciate that fixing today’s patently broken aid strategy is a tricky business, and that some “solutions” could make the problem even worse. This is not an unqualified argument against cutting Pakistan’s aid, but only for thinking carefully and acting with purpose.

Many academics and pundits have correctly pointed out failings in U.S. assistance to Pakistan. Most damningly, they argue that U.S. aid is often worse than ineffective; it is positively counterproductive. These critics have a point: Too often, American money has propped up some of the most repressive, anti-reformist leaders and institutions in Pakistani society, including the military and feudal civilian elites. So it is not altogether farfetched to argue that comprehensive, well-timed sanctions (including cutting indirect aid through multilateral lending institutions) could coerce Pakistan’s military and civilian establishment into enacting policies that would better serve U.S. interests. Indeed, the United States has successfully coerced Pakistan in the past — temporarily, at least. The George W. Bush administration’s post-9/11 “with us or against us” threat to then-President Pervez Musharraf forced Pakistan into an early, if fleeting and inadequate, alliance against al-Qaeda, one that netted several high-profile terrorists living in Pakistan like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But it is equally important to appreciate that U.S. attempts at coercion could backfire, raising tensions and weakening Pakistan in ways that make Islamabad both less willing and less capable of advancing any constructive agenda. One thing is certain: Rarely is Washington as capable of delivering a credible threat as it was in the days after 9/11. So unless the United States is really willing to pick a serious fight with Pakistan, it should avoid moves that irritate or weaken Islamabad when they hold little hope of advancing a serious strategic purpose.

Fourth, Washington needs to be much clearer about what it realistically expects to achieve with specific types of assistance to Pakistan. Whether provided for military or civilian purposes, U.S. aid is normally intended to serve one of several basic aims: building capacity, improving leverage, and buying access. Too often, the arguments for U.S. aid to Pakistan have been unconvincing because their purposes have been muddled. U.S. F-16s are a case in point. Are they intended to improve Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capacity along the Afghan border? Buy us more time in Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s office? Or, as Corker implies, to induce Pakistan’s army to attack the Haqqanis? The clearer and more realistic the aim, the easier it will be to judge whether the assistance is likely to deliver the desired outcome at a reasonable cost, the more likely it will win necessary congressional support, and the simpler it will be to explain to the Pakistanis.

Fifth, and finally, Washington should adopt a tripartite categorization of all assistance to Pakistan based on the degree to which the goals of each overlap. In the first category would be areas where there is a nearly complete convergence of American and Pakistani goals, but where the United States can offer financial, technical, or other support to lighten the burden on a relatively weaker, less-developed, and poorer nation.

Much of U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan falls into this category, because it is principally aimed at improving the country’s economic prospects as a means of achieving greater security and political stability over the long run. Military assistance in Pakistan’s fight against domestic insurgent groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan would also fall into this category, since Washington also views these groups as dangerous terrorists. U.S. aid in the category should be judged principally by its effectiveness, and its scale should be determined in part by how much is needed to make a meaningful difference to Pakistan’s future. Congress’s job is to oversee whether the executive branch is accurately assessing the effectiveness of that aid, but the money should not be burdened by onerous legislative conditions on the assumption that Pakistan will use it appropriately because Washington’s interests are more or less aligned.

In the second category would be areas of agreement over ends, but not means. Here, U.S. aid would be provided to advance common interests, but according to Washington’s preferences — not Islamabad’s. For instance, money for education would be conditioned on curriculum reform, or money for counterinsurgency linked to specialized training. This category of aid should be conditioned by Congress to make it more likely that it will be put to use in the ways defined by U.S. officials, but with enough flexibility to show that Washington’s main goal is cooperation, not coercive leverage.

In the third category would be areas of basic disagreement between Washington and Islamabad, such as longstanding disputes over the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Aid in this category is clearly intended as leverage. It must include strictly legislated conditions, and should be structured in ways that delivery takes place only after Pakistan satisfies Washington’s requirements. Here, the goal is to demonstrate the value that the United States would place on a policy shift by Islamabad while simultaneously being honest to ourselves and the Pakistanis about the deep differences that threaten to derail the bilateral relationship altogether.

To be clear, none of these changes is likely to resolve the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, at least not quickly. But Sen. Corker’s letter is an important indicator that the present strategy is politically unsustainable, while more radical calls to end U.S. assistance altogether are either too simplistic or too risky. Better to undertake the serious effort of mending our assistance strategy, if only to more transparently and realistically connect means and ends in ways that Americans and Pakistanis will better understand.

Photo Credit: Pool / Pool

Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website: