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Can aid salvage US-Pak relations?

By Syed Mohammad Ali

Its internal implications, apart from the memogate scandal has led to the appointment of a new Pakistani ambassador to the US, who has just taken charge of her responsibilities in Washington, at a time when relations between the two countries are severely strained. Last year was a particularly difficult one for Pakistan-US relations. There was continuing US pressure on Pakistan to do more to prevent cross-border terrorism, alongside a growing suspicion of alleged Pakistani complicity with militant groups to maintain strategic leverage vis-a-vis Afghanistan. Collateral damage caused by US drone strikes has not done much to lessen US resentment within a country whose citizens feel that they have had to face the brunt of violence and economic uncertainty in the ‘war against terror’.

In view of worsening bilateral relations, US aid flows to the military remain suspended, including $2 billion in payments under the Coalition Support Fund. The disbursement of non-military aid, including the $7.5 billion pledged under the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) has also been very slow. A US Congressional panel had reported reaching an agreement in December on freezing $700 million in aid to Islamabad, unless Pakistan stops the movement of fertilisers that militants in Afghanistan use in Improvised Explosive Devices to target American troops.

Appointment of our new ambassador to the US will provide impetus to bringing US-Pakistan relations back on track. In this regard, it would be vital to focus on not only resumption but also increased effectiveness of the US civilian assistance programme for Pakistan.

Recognising that the KLB is in grave danger, the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC has released a report this past month titled, “Aiding without abetting: Making US civilian assistance to Pakistan work for both sides”. This report warns that substantial midcourse changes are needed if the KLB is to fulfil the hopes associated with it.

Besides identifying strategic areas for aid investment, the report calls for policymakers on both sides to establish more realistic timelines for stepping up the percentages of US aid to be dispensed through the Pakistani government structures to prevent underutilisation or unavailability of committed funds. While proposing continued budgetary support for the Benazir Income Support Programme, it is suggested that the initiative be tightened to exclude political manipulation and also aim to move beneficiaries toward eventual independence, which is also a sensible suggestion.

However, insufficient attention is drawn to the underlying causes of poverty in the country, such as unequal land access in rural areas which remains a major reason for not only poverty but also social unrest. Although aiming to address such structural causes of deprivation may lead to resistance by vested interest groups, continuing to ignore such ground realities risks continued elite capture of incoming aid and its resulting impotency to make Pakistan a more equitable country.

Both, Pakistan and the US, must work harder to ensure that civilian aid actually reaches those it is intended for, instead of it being held captive to political agendas, or else being misappropriated. In this regard, formulation of more bottom-up instead of top-down aid policies and their genuine implementation would go a long way in allaying US concerns regarding its increasing unpopularity, while helping the Pakistani government curb the scrounge of militancy and deprivation, which has been growing domestically over this past decade as an inevitable outfall of the ‘war against terror’.


Originally publihsed by The Express Tribune

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