The increasingly harsh rhetoric from U.S. officials for Pakistan’s spy agency and its alleged support for the insurgent Haqqani network’s recent attacks on American interests has raised tensions in an already strained relationship. As U.S.-Pakistan relations deteriorate, questions are growing louder about the effectiveness of U.S. aid.

In a Q&A, S. Akbar Zaidi analyzes the view from Pakistan and explains how Washington should rethink its aid for Pakistan. Zaidi, author of a new paper on improving the success of U.S. aid, argues that the United States needs to rebalance its assistance away from the military toward governance and economic support. This is the only way to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian government vis-à-vis the military—and a stronger democracy will improve the stability of Pakistan and security of the United States.  

How effective is U.S. aid to Pakistan?

It is difficult to determine whether U.S. assistance has been successful and achieved its goals for the United States or Pakistan. The relationship is so complicated that the real purpose of U.S. aid is no longer even clear. Post-9/11, the nature of U.S. support has been primarily military assistance with a focus on counterterrorism, but the specific aims, objectives, and conditionalities have been ambiguous on both sides.

Washington has considered Islamabad an essential ally in fighting global terrorism and Pakistan’s military has benefited materially. Between 2002 and 2010, the United States gave Pakistan over $2 billion a year on average, totally nearly $19 billion. Most of this was used for military purposes. And with much of the money largely flowing into military operations instead of tangible projects, it’s difficult to assess the success.

In some ways, the United States has been supported by Pakistan in the war on terrorism. Having said that, however, there is a startling lack of trust between the two countries. This was put on display for the world to see when the United States killed Osama bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan this May. This implied that the Pakistani government was either not doing its job well or was being duplicitous. 

There are obvious reasons for both the United States and Pakistan to be disappointed that so much U.S. aid has had so little positive impact.

How does Pakistan perceive U.S. aid?

Many Pakistanis feel that they are fighting an American war on terrorism and it is costing Pakistan lives and resources. But the military, civilian government, and civil society look at the aid relationship with the United States differently and all three groups must be assessed to understand how Pakistanis feel about U.S. assistance.

The military is grateful for the amount of money it receives because it is able to buy new arms and supplies. But the military is skeptical about the relationship with the United States. It’s not the aid so much, but the feeling that Pakistan is always asked to do more.

The Pakistani military has lost a large number of its own men and there have been 35,000 Pakistanis killed since 2001 (not only as a consequence of the war on terrorism, but also militancy within Pakistan). The military feels that it is not given enough respect and support from the Americans. And of course this line of thinking was exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden.

The civilian government is constantly being told to do more. It feels pushed by Washington even though there is little it can do to control the military. Pakistan’s military is the dominant player in Pakistan and this means that the civilian leadership is not as forceful on how the aid is being used. The democratically elected government seems a bit shortchanged by the United States and the disproportionate amount of aid it receives compared to the military.

The third set of actors to look at is the development organizations and civil society. This group has largely been disappointed by U.S. aid. They have not received as much money as they hoped. Development aid, until very recently through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, has been quite limited. And much of the development assistance has gone to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the security situation there means that most development organizations are not active in the area. 

Pakistan’s civil society feels like the United States has not done enough. The changes in both the U.S. and Pakistani administrations a few years ago presented an opportunity to shift attention away from an almost exclusive focus on military aid. In reality, the relationship changed a little, but not substantially. The main reason for this is that the bulk of the $1.5 billion per year promised under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill for social programs has not been delivered.

What has gone wrong with U.S. assistance to Pakistan?

It’s clear that the United States is focused on military and counterterrorism objectives. And despite what the U.S. government often thinks, Pakistan’s military has supported a large amount of U.S. goals, with American drone strikes being a good example. While the Pakistani military is publicly opposed to the use of drones, in private security officials support drone strikes because they target militants who have also attacked the Pakistani military.
The main problem is that the other forms of American assistance that could have fostered better relations with civil society, non-governmental organizations, and even the civilian government have been missing. The Obama administration should have given stronger support for democratization and economic development, but this didn’t happen. 

Whenever the U.S. government tells Pakistan to do more, it is mostly related to the military front, not the need for better governance and economic improvements. The United States should have strengthened the civilian government by working directly with it instead of the military.

How should U.S. policies change?

If the United States sees Pakistan as an unwilling partner in the war on terrorism and fighting the insurgency, there will always be problems in the relationship. This is one of the most complex relationships in the world. Pakistan has serious problems that started before 9/11—a lack of economic development, Islamic sectarian violence, weak civilian power—and these challenges need to be addressed.

The United States needs to rethink how to approach the relationship. And despite the billions of dollars spent and the debate within Washington, this hasn’t happened yet.

With military aid two to three times larger than economic aid, the United States has strengthened the hand of a military that often thwarts American counterterrorism objectives. Washington has chosen to sidestep Pakistan’s civilian government, because there is a widely shared belief that the Pakistani military is more able and gets faster results. This has been a missed opportunity to strengthen and support democratic movements and institutions.

The government is subservient to the military in terms of power, clout, and authority, and it often seems that the civilian government is doing the military’s bidding either voluntarily or through coercion. Expectations that Pakistan’s civilian government can deal with rogue elements in the military are unrealistic. It’s unfair to castigate the civilian government for things that the military is doing or not doing. Without full control, it is impossible for the civilian government to fix all the problems in Pakistan.

This means that there needs to be a softer approach in dealing with the civilian government. A stronger signal needs to come from the United States that it is supporting the democratic government in Pakistan. While the short-term goals are militaristic, the long-term goals need to be based on Pakistan’s security and stability.

And if the United States wants to build a better relationship based on greater trust, then aid must be rethought. Washington needs to give the fledgling government more governance and economic support and press for reforms within Pakistan. There needs to be more engagement, more trust on both sides, and a greater accommodation of differences. Additionally, the United States should help India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan improve their nonmilitary relationships. This would stabilize the region and Pakistan.

To build a better relationship with the government of Pakistan, the United States also needs to bulk up its economic and disaster relief. Last year, Pakistan was hit by extensive flooding. The United States quickly provided assistance to the victims and its actions went down very well in Pakistan until drone attacks again inflamed anti-Americanism.

It won’t be easy, but there are real opportunities to improve U.S.-Pakistan relations through better use of U.S. aid. The United States must take a long-term approach.