When the Gift Becomes an Insult

in Program

You know when US-Pakistan relations are in bad shape when what is perceived as a generous gift in one country is widely received as an insult in the other.  Such is the case with the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation which authorizes up to $7.5 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan over the next five years. 

The strenuous opposition to this aid package by many in Pakistan genuinely surprised supporters of this legislation in the United States.  Granted, Kerry-Lugar-Berman wasn’t entirely philanthropic: American legislators understand that Pakistan’s stabilization serves US national security interests, and stabilization depends on economic growth, better social services, and educational opportunities in Pakistan.  But the amounts authorized were between three and five times more generous than in the years since 2001.  And although Pakistani readers may find this hard to believe, the conditionalities attached to the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation were exceptionally lax by Capitol Hill standards. 

It was therefore both ironic and disturbing that the hard-won consensus behind this legislation on Capitol Hill generated such strident negativity in the Pakistani media and the National Assembly, as well as a rare public statement of disapproval by the Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani.

To minimize further damage and to make the most of subsequent Congressional economic aid appropriations, it’s worth trying to distinguish between political posturing, historical grievances, and genuine complaints within Pakistan.  With good reason, grievances are deeply rooted in the Pakistani psyche, political culture, and national experience.  Unfortunately, this grievance-oriented political culture focuses on score settling.   It’s hard to move forward when so much time is spent in the past. 

Negative outcomes are widely expected in Pakistan’s political culture – no matter what someone else says, does or offers.  Conspiracies exist in abundance in Pakistan, both real and imagined.  It doesn’t take much effort to blur this line, especially in a hyperventilating, free-wheeling media.  But if enough Pakistanis are convinced that they cannot win when dealing with the United States, then eventually enough members of Congress will conclude that it’s not worth trying to convince Pakistanis otherwise.

Political point scoring between major parties is to be expected in a democracy.  Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill now have great difficulty finding common ground on the most consequential matters of state and society.  So Americans should be able to understand political point scoring in Pakistan on Kerry-Lugar-Berman – even though it weakens ties with the United States that are essential for Pakistan’s national security.  But points would not be scored so easily if grievances with the United States were not so wide and deep. 

The variable state of civil-military relations in Pakistan has further complicated consideration of Kerry-Lugar-Berman.  This legislation includes hortatory language in support of civilian control over the military, including a most unwise reference to “the process of promotion for senior military leaders.” Proper civil-military relations depend on merit promotion within the military, and are subverted when politicians have a keen interest in which Colonels are promoted to Brigadier Generals.  Senator Kerry and Congressman Berman have issued an important clarifying statement in this regard.

Senior military officers have also taken offense at the reporting requirements associated with nonproliferation and counter-terrorism goals that both governments share, viewing them as hunting expeditions for US auditors and precursors for sanctions, as was the case in for Pressler amendment. 

Pressler, which became law in 1985, facilitated US assistance at the time when Pakistan was developing nuclear weapon capabilities and helping to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan.  The means of continuing assistance under these delicate circumstances was a presidential certification that Pakistan had not crossed certain red lines in bomb making.  In October 1990, shortly after Pakistan helped the United States expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan, sanctions were imposed by President George H.W. Bush – a great betrayal, in the Pakistani narrative.  Missing from this narrative is a crisis with India earlier in 1990, during which the Pakistani military blew past oft-discussed red lines, triggering sanctions.

Selective history is essential for maintaining grievances.  This is true not only for the Pressler amendment, but also for the severe internal security threats that Pakistan now faces.  These threats are the partial inheritance of the combined US-Pakistani efforts to build up the “mujahideen” who made Soviet military deployments in Afghanistan unsustainable.  When the United States then turned its back on Afghanistan – or so the Pakistani narrative goes – Pakistan was left to cope with violent extremism.  The retelling of this narrative conveniently leaves out Pakistan’s support for the “freedom fighters” and the Taliban for its own purposes in Kashmir and Afghanistan.     

Many in the United States clearly understand why leaving Afghanistan and sanctioning Pakistan for a decade were not wise choices.  If many in Pakistan now understand that a decade of support for “freedom fighters” and the Taliban were also unwise choices, we have a basis for avoiding past mistakes and helping each other become more secure.

Where do we go from here?  Dwelling in the past doesn’t help.  If both the United States and Pakistan focus on common national interests, continue doing what they have pledged to do, and avoid doing what they say they have no intention to do, grievances will lessen and conspiracy theories will prove false.  

The United States Congress can do its part by proceeding with appropriations for economic assistance to Pakistan to the maximum extent authorized by Kerry-Lugar-Berman, as well as maximizing the proportion of those expenditures actually spent within Pakistan.  US legislation clearly expresses the intention of Capitol Hill to deliver economic assistance in far more effective ways than in the past.  The same message is coming through loud and clear from Islamabad.  Under these circumstances, it might be useful to establish a multi-party group of US and Pakistani legislators to oversee the implementation of aid distribution so that it has its intended effects. 


Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices