Washington’s Civilian Shortcomings in Pakistan
Image Credit: The White House

Washington’s Civilian Shortcomings in Pakistan


Nearly three years ago, the Obama administration and Congress signaled their intention to forge a civilian partnership with the new, democratically elected government of Pakistan. Motivating this reset was a sincere desire, in Washington and Islamabad, to avoid a confusion that has defined the U.S.-Pakistan relationship for decades: the conflation of security and non-security objectives in the distribution of U.S. aid to Pakistan. The centerpiece of this new approach was the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, commonly referred to as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which authorized $7.5 billion in U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan over five years. Yet if the United States hopes to achieve the goals it laid out in 2009, it must change its approach now.

In Washington, much of the recent debate on Pakistan has focused on security issues, such as the role of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex in aiding insurgent violence. Diplomatic disputes over NATO supply lines and the future of Afghanistan following America’s departure in 2014 are also hot topics. Much less attention is paid to the state of the development and economic partnership between the United States and Pakistan.

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Three years since the passage of Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, a new report by the Center for Global Development argues that U.S. development efforts in Pakistan are off course and have failed to achieve what the act’s creators and administration proponents had hoped. To be fair, this outcome is a function of several factors, many beyond the control of development policymakers. Pakistan’s development challenges run quite deep, and the civilian-led Pakistani government has repeatedly failed to enact crucial economic reforms. High-profile diplomatic incidents have also interrupted the overall dialogue, among other issues.

Over the past year, the U.S. government has made important strides in getting the development program back on course. Still, the U.S. development approach in Pakistan suffers from a number of “self-inflicted wounds”—operating at three distinct levels. At the conceptual level, U.S. efforts to clearly separate development and security activities in Pakistan—a key tenet of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill—have largely failed. At the strategic level, the United States has not yet succeeded in establishing a coherent development strategy that has buy-in across the U.S. government not to mention in Islamabad. And at the level of execution, the administration and Congress were overly optimistic about the ability of U.S. civilian agencies to ramp up operations quickly and extensively in Pakistan.

Conceptually, though the administration and Congress—working in good faith—hoped to erect a firewall between America’s security and development interests in Pakistan, the U.S. government’s words and deeds have often eroded whatever division may have existed. With the CIA’s fake vaccination campaign to help catch Osama Bin Laden, U.S. military-intelligence agencies’ program of targeted drone strikes in the tribal areas, and congressional leaders’ decision to make economic assistance contingent on counterterrorism cooperation, many Pakistanis view U.S. “development” aid as a bribe intended to reduce anti-Americanism and buy compliance on security matters. For all the talk about U.S. foreign policy giving equal weight to defense, diplomacy, and development, in Pakistan, development has largely been subservient to the other two.

At a strategic level, U.S. development efforts have lacked clarity of vision. At the heart of the disconnect is a fundamental disagreement between the foreign policy and development arms of the U.S. government over the objectives of U.S. civilian aid. The former wants an early and visible return that will improve America’s standing; the latter wants to focus on investments in improving long-run development outcomes that may have little visibility and impact in the short run. In the absence of a shared consensus in Washington about the objectives of U.S. development efforts and the reality of multiple goals promoted by a host of powerful actors (Congress, the White House, the State Department, and USAID, in particular), there has been no coherent strategy or clearly defined leadership—in the United States and in Pakistan—on U.S. development policy.

Finally, there have been multiple failures when it comes to the execution of aid programs. USAID has struggled to implement projects in Pakistan because it has not been equipped to succeed. The agency’s prior limited presence in the country, its shortage of qualified staff, and overbearing new reporting requirements have all played a part in hampering USAID’s ability to scale up effectively. Furthermore, Washington has often prioritized the “branding” potential of development projects over their merit on purely developmental grounds. In practice, this has meant that some projects that cannot be easily labeled with U.S. flags or symbols, for instance, but are otherwise worthy have not been pursued, while others that are more easily branded but less worthy are.

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