In case you missed the latest from the soap opera that is the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, here’s a summary of this week’s drama. As first reported in the New York Times, the Obama administration suspended $800 million in security assistance to Pakistan—about a third of the total budgeted for this year. Pakistani generals reacted defiantly to the snub. As this episode continues to unfold, it’s important to remember that a squall on the military or diplomatic sides of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship need not and should not founder the beleaguered effort to find room for partnership on economic development issues.
The Kerry-Lugar-Berman assistance package passed by Congress in 2009 was intended to allow a development strategy to carry on through these inevitable crises. It explicitly decoupled the United States’ civilian economic strategy in Pakistan from its military strategy. Introducing the 5-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package, Senator John Kerry described how a firm U.S. commitment on the civilian side could increase flexibility on the military side:
Making this unequivocal commitment to the Pakistani people enables us to calibrate our military assistance more effectively. In any given year we may choose to increase it, or to decrease it, or to leave its level unchanged. For too long, the Pakistani military have felt we were bluffing when we’ve threatened to cut funding for a particular weapons system or expensive piece of hardware—and up to now, they’ve been right. But if our economic aid is tripled to $1.5 billion, we can afford to end this game.
The idea was that by forging ahead with civilian engagement even at times where military strategy demanded cuts to the security assistance budget, the United States would demonstrate to the Pakistani people that it cares about more than their army’s cooperation. Meanwhile, the United States would also be supporting its long-term interest in Pakistan’s economic and political stability—an interest that demands steady, trusting relationships over many years with Pakistan’s democratic leaders, business community, and civil society.
Unfortunately, this decoupling of economic and military relationships is more or less historically unprecedented. A look at the history of U.S. aid to Pakistan shows that military and economic assistance have risen and fallen in tandem. Those fluctuations have been driven first and foremost by immediate security and strategic concerns—the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the Pakistani nuclear program, to name two examples.
Many Pakistanis doubt the United States has really changed its approach. They have reason to be skeptical. Too much of the development program has been taken up by immediate stabilization efforts in conflict zones along the border with Afghanistan. In the diplomatic crisis surrounding the killing of two civilians by a CIA employee in Lahore, important economic policy dialogues were scuttled. Most troubling, some in the U.S. Congress—who voted for this new two-track approach—are reverting back to old ways of doing business, threatening the development program every time the security relationship with Pakistan hits a rough spot.
Now, in this latest period of turmoil, Congressional critics are already moving to slash civilian aid. That would be counterproductive. Cutting civilian assistance because it is an easier target than military aid is poor policy. If security assistance is failing to achieve security goals, it makes sense to reassess that assistance. But the foundation of U.S. Pakistan policy is right—the decoupled, two-track civilian and military approach described in Kerry-Lugar-Berman. A reassessment of the military relationship can take place even as American diplomats and development experts continue to work to help strengthen Pakistan’s institutions of democratic governance, support advocates for economic and political reform, and create incentives for private investment and job creation.
Ideally, much of that work could continue even if some civilian aid falls victim to budgetary belt-tightening. A true civilian assistance strategy should not be just an aid strategy—trade and investment policy and serious technical and diplomatic engagement are just as important. But as it stands, the seriousness of American civilian engagement is measured largely by how much money is in the aid budget, even if the levels of aid are higher than can be spent usefully at present. In that environment, a cut to civilian aid to Pakistan would be interpreted as the United States walking away from the development table altogether.
I can’t say whether it was a good idea to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan’s military by suspending this portion of the aid budget. Certainly, the lesson from the development side is that a decision to give or withdraw aid almost never carries with it the intended leverage over difficult policy decisions that a donor would like it to. However, the basic point is this: the United States has separate security and development strategies in Pakistan for a reason. No one would suggest halting shipments of army helicopters to Pakistan if Pakistani children’s health indicators do not improve. The reverse scenario makes just as little sense.