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What does $1.5 billion a year buy these days?

12/10/2009

A whole lot of grief and hurt feelings to judge by the debates going on in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar legislation, a complete version of which can be found here. Several American friends have asked what right Pakistan has to get so upset about receiving $1.5 billion a year from the U.S. And on the face of it that does seem a bit preposterous. Dig a little deeper and the outrage emanating from Islamabad [and really from Rawalpindi where the Army is based] makes more sense.

The conditions within the bill are viewed as a breach of national sovereignty. This is a particularly big deal in Pakistan, a young country which is hyper-sensitive about its sovereignty and which is seeing that sovereignty violated on a regular basis by US drone strikes.

Rather than trying to unpack the Pakistani psyche [as if there were only one] in a single blog post, I’d propose taking a step back and looking at how elites and masses are shaping the current debate. Caveat: this is an oversimplified, strawmaneque way of looking at the problem. But please bear with me.

To the degree that ‘the Pakistani street’ objects to Kerry-Lugar it is largely a question of trust. During my last trip there I had numerous debates with Pakistani colleagues about the appropriate level of conditionality in US aid.

For most of them the issue of sovereignty was viewed through the prism of trust, i.e. America either trusted Pakistan to sort out its own affairs or it didn’t and thus felt compelled to meddle. This goes to both how America is believed to view Pakistan and how Pakistanis view themselves. Some of my debating partners were members of the liberal intelligentsia, people who were critical of the army and the government.Despite all of the vitriol they heaped upon the civilian and military leadership, they nonetheless took great offense at an outside power pushing Pakistan around.

The political and military elites who have objected to the conditions in Kerry-Lugar appear to be instrumentalizing this national sentiment. I don’t doubt that many of them feel the same sense of national pride, but I’d also bet that in some cases others factors are at play.

First of all, Congress wants to know where and how the money is being spent. Given the propensity for cash to be diverted in Pakistan this is an understandable request by Congress. Conversely, given the propensity for cash to be diverted in Pakistani this is an understandable point of contention for certain actors living there.

Second, the US also is making some of the same demands it has made for a while, but is now demanding a certification process. According to the bill:

Certification- The certification required by this subsection is a certification to the appropriate congressional committees by the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, that the security forces of Pakistan–

(1) are making concerted efforts to prevent al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, from operating in the territory of Pakistan;

(2) are making concerted efforts to prevent the Taliban and associated militant groups from using the territory of Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks within Afghanistan; and

(3) are not materially interfering in the political or judicial processes of Pakistan.

I’ve no doubt that a host of other factors are contributing to the discourse in Pakistan right now, not least the overall sense of US meddling. Could the bill have been written in a more sensitive manner? Probably. Is there a philosophical difference, i.e. the US wants metrics and elements within Pakistan see that as a breach of sovereignty. Absolutely.

However, I also have little doubt that beyond their explicit nature, it is the content of the above clauses that is raising some hackles. And I don’t think the only reason for that is wounded national pride. It’s not just that the US is placing conditions on aid, but the nature of those conditions. For example, is Pakistan acting against groups [LeT, JeM, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqanni Network] that it has been reluctant to move against in the past? Given the news that the Indian embassy was attackedagain, and that last time the ISI was reported to be complicit, these are worthwhile questions to ask.

This does not negate the sense among some Pakistanis that their country is being asked to fight America’s war for it. Or among Americans that elements within Pakistan continue to play a double game vis-à-vis militant outfits operating there.

 

It does suggest that we need to move beyond the issue of sovereignty – always useful for whipping up the citizenry – and get down to the fundamental issue that we’re dealing with two countries that have vastly different strategic priorities. On that score, it is debatable whether the US should be looking to win hearts and minds or simply looking for leverage where it can find it.