When it crafted a giant civilian aid plan for Pakistan last year, the US proclaimed a turning point in a troubled relationship, with US money henceforth to serve the cause of democracy.
On Friday, in the wake of the latest tensions between the war partners, US President Barack Obama’s administration announced it would seek another US$2 billion in aid for Pakistan — this time, destined for the military.
The Obama administration has repeatedly pledged support for civilian rule in Pakistan, which was restored in 2008, and said on Friday it would bar assistance from several military units accused of human rights abuses.
However, the latest aid package shows that the US is also keen to meet the wish-lists of the army, which has long been a major player in Pakistan and provides vital logistical support for forces in Afghanistan.
Teresita Schaffer, a former US diplomat who has served in Islamabad, said the US faced a balancing act between working with the military and supporting civilian institutions.
“The US routinely has trouble figuring out exactly where that line belongs and how to stay on the right side of things,” said Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Partly that’s because the military in Pakistan is a can-do institution, much more so than the civilians,” she said.
“This is partly theatrics, but we as a people are magnetically drawn to an institution and a leader who says, ‘Yeah, I can help you with what you really want to get done,’” she said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the military package during the two nations’ latest Strategic Dialogue, where Pakistan’s public face was Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
However, as in previous talks, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, also turned up in Washington and held meetings behind closed doors.
Kayani was unusually public last year in his criticism of Washington’s five-year, US$7.5 billion civilian aid package, calling it undue foreign interference.
The bill’s authors — US senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar and US Representative Howard Berman — described the aid as a way to improve US relations with ordinary Pakistanis and dent the allure of Islamic extremists in the nuclear power.
More recently, Kayani was said to have criticized civilian leaders over their response to major floods. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stayed in Europe when the disaster struck, saying he was more needed on the diplomatic stage than at home.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, said he did not see a shift so much in Washington’s relations with the Pakistani military as with its perceptions of the civilians.
“I think the civilian government has missed a number of opportunities to show it is in charge and can take decisions rapidly and firmly, and the floods were a very good example of that,” Nawaz said.
The US Congress needs to approve the US$2 billion military package, which would be spread over five years.
While the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act won wide backing last year, some US lawmakers have since voiced impatience at what they perceive as ingratitude from Pakistan. Other lawmakers have accused Pakistan of being too cozy with Afghanistan’s Taliban, some of whom roam freely in lawless border areas, and faulted Islamabad’s strategic focus on rival India.
Still, some analysts predicted that Congress would ultimately approve the military aid, which replaces an earlier five-year package that expired.
Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former US policymaker on South Asia, said that a more critical test for military assistance to Pakistan may come next year.
Under the Kerry-Lugar--Berman Act, the administration must certify next year that Pakistan is taking action against Islamic extremists on its soil for aid to continue, although the president has the power to waive any cut-off.
“We are entering a somewhat new phase in US military assistance to Pakistan when for the first time we’re actually seeing the aid conditioned on Pakistan meeting benchmarks,” Curtis said.
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