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Should U.S. Continue Aid to Pakistan?

Authors: E. Candace Putnam, Cyrus Vance Fellow in Diplomatic Studies Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program Hassan Abbas, Fellow, Asia Society; Senior Advisor, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University Marvin G. Weinbaum, Scholar-in-Residence and Director of Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute
Interviewer(s): Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
May 17, 2011

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In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death in a U.S. special forces raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, U.S. lawmakers have raised pointed questions over the legitimacy of Pakistani counterterrorism efforts (Reuters) and the viability of tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relations. A major component of this relationship is billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan, much of it for security-related programs.

Four experts provide a range of views on whether the United States should continue that aid and if so, under what conditions. CFR expert E. Candace Putnam says Pakistan must demonstrate its reliability as a strategic U.S. partner, but warns that an "abrupt cut in U.S. aid will only endanger security cooperation," while CFR's Isobel Coleman notes the U.S. will benefit by remaining involved particularly in "economic reform, energy, and education--especially girls' education." The Asia Society's Hassan Abbas claims that history has proven that "Pakistan's support for a peaceful and viable settlement in Afghanistan is a must," and that suspending aid would be both "immoral" and counterproductive to U.S. interests. In contrast, the Middle East Institute's Marvin Weinbaum says the United States should cut foreign aid to Pakistan, but cautions against an abrupt reduction that would "jeopardize U.S. military forces."

E. Candace Putnam, Cyrus Vance Fellow in Diplomatic Studies

The fact that Osama bin Laden hid in Pakistan for five years demonstrates that Pakistan's military was either complicit or incompetent. Either prospect is deeply troubling, but another abrupt cut in U.S. aid will only endanger security cooperation that has been effective, if insufficient, in making America safer.

The United States is constrained by three harsh realities:

-- Closing terrorist safe-havens and keeping Pakistan's nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands requires sustained Pakistani action.

-- We cannot fight in Afghanistan without the 80 percent of fuel and dry goods shipped through Pakistan. A responsible withdrawal of U.S. forces depends on an Afghan political solution that Pakistan will influence.

-- Pakistan's stability affects India, Afghanistan, China, and Iran. It is a country of 180 million Muslims struggling with a weak civilian government, massive debt, and growing religious extremism fueled by widespread poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. U.S. sanctions would precipitate an economic crisis that likely would bring down the current government.

Pakistan hedges its bets, primarily through official and unofficial support for proxy terrorist forces they use to protect what they believe are existential strategic interests in Afghanistan and India. These proxies are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan and have growing global terrorist ambitions.

America has cut off aid before, with disastrous results. We funneled millions through Pakistan to oust the Soviets from Kabul, but we later cut all assistance for twelve years under nuclear-related sanctions. After 9/11, we came back with primarily military aid and demands they fight the Taliban. Today, the Pakistani people distrust us as a fair-weather friend that supports military dictators. The rising generation of Pakistani generals, barred under sanctions from U.S. training, remains wary of cooperation just when we need them to help us defeat al-Qaeda.

Through bilateral cooperation, more al-Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed in Pakistan than in any other country. But Pakistan hedges its bets, primarily through official and unofficial support for proxy terrorist forces they use to protect what they believe are existential strategic interests in Afghanistan and India. These proxies are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan and have growing global terrorist ambitions. So, the United States also hedges bets with unilateral actions like the raid on Osama.

The Osama raid was a wake-up call that it is now Pakistan's turn to demonstrate its reliability as an ally. Pakistan's parliament, media, and citizens are publicly questioning a deeply embarrassed military/intelligence establishment. The United States has also demanded answers about Osama's support network and should support an investigation that increases military accountability to the civilian government. An investigation won't produce public admissions of failure, but it could lead to a strategic policy reassessment that is in U.S. interests. We need to remain engaged to make this happen.

Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program

Questions about how Osama bin Laden could have hidden for years next door to the Pakistani military in Abbottabad has put the conflicting interests of the United States and Pakistan on full display. The upcoming trial of David Headley (Reuters) is expected to reveal links between the Pakistani military and the terrorist group that carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and will likely cause additional strain. Of course, the ISI's chronic double-dealing is not new. What is less often acknowledged is that the Pakistani military sees the world fundamentally differently from the United States. Washington views its support for the Taliban as a root cause of terrorism, the same terrorism that has claimed more victims in Pakistan since 9/11 than in any other country. The Pakistani military sees its support of the Taliban as crucial to its own security--a source of influence in Afghanistan when the United States inevitably leaves and a counterbalance to arch-rival India. Nothing U.S. policymakers do or say is going to change that dynamic.

The harsh reality is that Pakistan is too strategically important, and too dangerous a situation, for the United States to ignore. It behooves the United States to remain involved in the areas that can make the most difference, particularly economic reform, energy, and education.

As tensions escalate between the two countries, demands across the United States are growing for Washington to cut off aid to Pakistan. However, history reminds us of the dangers of walking away. Deeply concerned about Pakistan's clandestine nuclear program, we did that in the 1990s. As relations with the United States deteriorated, Pakistan pursued ties with the Taliban--part of its "strategic depth" initiative to counter India and bring "stability" to Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation. It also continued an aggressive nuclear program too, complete with disastrous global proliferation.

The harsh reality is that Pakistan is too strategically important, and too dangerous a situation, for the United States to ignore. It behooves the United States to remain involved in the areas that can make the most difference, particularly economic reform, energy, and education--especially girls' education. At its current fertility rate, Pakistan's population of 180 million will double in less than three decades--meaning every social, economic, educational, health, and environmental issue will only increase. On the security front, the United States must admit that Pakistan will never give up the Taliban and will continue to divert U.S. military aid to its eastern border with India rather than its western border to fight the Taliban. Any military engagement that assumes otherwise is a fool's errand.

Hassan Abbas, Fellow, Asia Society; Senior Advisor, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

The exact nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains shrouded in mystery. Pakistan has both been called the "most allied ally" as well as the "most bullied ally" of the United States. Perhaps the reality is somewhere in between. However, in this context, one fact is verifiable--the ups and downs between the two states have been largely counterproductive--more so for the United States than Pakistan. South Asian and global security were also impacted by sanctions. Cutting off aid to Pakistan proved especially detrimental in the post-1980s, Afghan Jihad era. During the 1990s, the internal situation in Afghanistan went from bad to worse and A.Q. Khan's nuclear proliferation racket boomed when both states were going through a difficult bilateral phase.

Unless the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is meant to be permanent (which is highly unlikely), Pakistan's support for a peaceful and viable settlement in Afghanistan is a must.

There are some powerful counterarguments to the above assertions as well. Many Pakistanis believe U.S. military aid to Pakistan has been detrimental for the country's democratic potential. Some circles in the United States also argue that despite U.S. investment in Pakistan over the years, its military establishment is tilted toward China. Hence the question, "Why are we stuck with Pakistan?"

Simply put, it's because critical American interests are at stake in and around Pakistan. Unless the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is meant to be permanent (which is highly unlikely), Pakistan's support for a peaceful and viable settlement in Afghanistan is a must. There is no way to wriggle out of it--and if there are any doubts, a mere glance at recent history is advised. Strengthening of the India-Pakistan peace process will also benefit U.S. economic and trade interests in the region. Last but not least, Pakistan has paid a heavy price for supporting the U.S.-led "war on terror" since 9/11--both in terms of facing a brutal backlash from a variety of militant and terrorist groups as well as a negative impact on its economy. While Pakistan itself played a major role in its drift toward extremism, U.S. mistakes also contributed to the current situation. Therefore, cutting off aid, especially development aid, at this hour will be immoral and damaging for U.S. policy objectives.

Marvin G. Weinbaum, Scholar-in-Residence and Director of Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute

U.S. aid to Pakistan should be cut back. The question is when and for what reason? Certainly, the United States has not received anything like full return on its military and economic assistance to Pakistan that has totaled more than $20 billion since 2001. Pakistan's help in curbing those militant groups engaged in the Afghanistan insurgency and its willingness to crack down on domestic extremists with broader ambitions is at best incomplete. Anger over bin Laden's having found refuge in Abbottabad has obviously intensified doubts about the partnership. Despite our efforts, American aid to date has engendered far more resentment and suspicion in Pakistan than it has public appreciation. Our policymakers have had difficulty deciding how best to get political mileage and effectively spread aid. Threatening to end the assistance might be the kind of shock treatment Pakistan needs to bring about the level of domestic revenue-extraction policies that would make the country less dependent on foreign assistance. A good case can also be made that the United States could accomplish more with trade concessions than with financial aid.

American aid should be an investment and stimulus aimed toward realizing a more self-reliant, democratic Pakistan. That way, ending it can lay the basis for a more genuine strategic relationship rather than be seen as punishing Pakistan.

But to now abruptly reduce assistance to Pakistan would jeopardize American military forces in Afghanistan and weaken the Pakistani army's capacity to confront those domestically ensconced terrorist groups that threaten us both. It could also leave us less confident about the disposition of Pakistan's nuclear assets. A revised U.S. aid policy should aim at empowering those groups and institutions most inclined to recognize that Pakistan's real security threats lie within--from its extremists and the country's unmet social and economic problems. Our programs need to resource those areas of civil society, the private sector, and government most inclined to initiate political reforms and long-term economic growth. While assistance to the military must continue, it should be more conditioned to prevent bad behavior and increase opportunities for a greater civilian role in directing foreign policy. American aid should, then, be an investment and stimulus aimed toward realizing a more self-reliant, democratic Pakistan. That way, ending it can lay the basis for a more genuine strategic relationship rather than be seen as punishing Pakistan.

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