Fixing the U.S.-Pakistan Alliance

Counterterrorism Must Be Balanced by Economic Development Aid

Mehar Najeeb suggests ways the U.S. government can help the Pakistani government help its people and the bilateral alliance simultaneously.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, makes a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, makes a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Mutual exasperation defines U.S.-Pakistan relations these days. U.S. impatience with Pakistani counterterrorism efforts is matched by commentary in Pakistan reflecting a similar weariness with American counterterrorism priorities. Security concerns and militant attacks are commonplace in Pakistan, but average Pakistanis struggle under bleak socioeconomic prospects that have little to do directly with terrorism within their country. These socioeconomic needs must be urgently addressed primarily by the Pakistani government but also through a shift in American policy in Pakistan to better tackle Pakistan’s numerous sources of instability beyond militancy.

Today the U.S.-Pakistan partnership revolves largely around security issues while U.S. aid to Pakistan and high-level talks have long been focused on military and counterterrorism operations. The battle against extremist outfits is essential for internal and global security but it should not come at the exclusion of other efforts. A narrow counterterrorism focus neglects other factors that are integral to the stability of the Pakistani state, and distorts the Pakistani public’s perception of and cooperation with the United States.

Pakistani perceptions of the United States remain mired in conspiracy theories. Sentiment in Pakistan is that American engagement with Pakistan is contingent on its utility for U.S. global priorities. The narrative is based partly on inconsistent American assistance and policies in the past, such as the absence of U.S. aid in dealing with the millions of refugees and groups of veteran insurgents that entered Pakistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. This remains the case despite recent U.S. efforts to help Pakistan fix some of its economic development problems.

The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, enacted on October 15, 2009, and sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), tripled nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. The law represents an attempt to convey clearly the U.S. commitment to developmental assistance and reverse Pakistani skepticism about the U.S. willingness to serve as a long-term partner, but a large amount of these funds have not yet been delivered. Since 2009 only $500 million of the pledged $1.5 billion a year has been disbursed.

The delays resulted from the Obama administration’s efforts to deliver large fractions of the funds through the Pakistani government and agencies rather than American contractors. Strict U.S. rules in the disbursal of aid slowed the effort considerably, as did the lack of capacity in the Pakistani bureaucracy, which more than compounds the problem. Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is coupled (and interlinked) with frustrations over the failures of the Pakistani government, which is losing credibility among its own people and allies. With widespread tax evasion, Pakistan has one of the lowest tax revenues in the world, resulting in a lack of funding for development and infrastructure.

The Pakistani government must carry out policy and structure overhauls to reform the state, deliver services, and invest in its people to ensure stability over the long term. The United States can help by expediting substantial development and economic growth initiatives from the international community in Pakistan and strengthening engagement with the Pakistani people. While terrorism plagues the country, millions of Pakistanis are being crippled by unemployment, rising food prices, undernourishment, lack of health care, and illiteracy. Here are the grim statistics:

  • Rising food prices mean that about 120 million Pakistanis, or around two-thirds of the population, are using 50 percent to 60 percent of their household incomes only on food. 36 percent of Pakistanis are undernourished, and food inflation has increased 94 percent over the last four years.
  • Health care is inaccessible for a significant portion of the population. In 2009 Pakistan spent only the equivalent of 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product—the largest measure of economic growth—on the health sector. Fertility rates and mortality rates for children under 5 in Pakistan are among the highest in South Asia, and chronic child malnutrition stands at 40 percent.
  • The Pakistani education system is almost nonfunctional. In 2009 the government spent the equivalent of 1.8 percent of GDP on education, which explains the lack of skilled instructors and poor quality of education and facilities. The adult literacy rate stands at 56 percent, with 69 percent of males and 44 percent of females classifying as literate. Due to the lack of institutions of higher learning, only 3 percent to 4 percent of the eligible age cohort, 17 to 23 years of age, is receiving tertiary education. With 63 percent of the population under 25, these statistics will directly impact the future of Pakistan, hindering stability and prosperity in the country.

Pakistan also faces an energy crisis that has paralyzed industries and businesses across the country. Power outages last an average of 10 hours, with rural areas experiencing up to 16 hours without electricity. Less than 50 percent of the population has access to modern energy services, which leads to more unemployment, less industrial production, and more difficulties in creating small businesses. Starting in 2009 the U.S. Agency for International Development began a three-phase signature energy program in Pakistan, the first two phases of which consisted of power plant and distribution improvements and completion of two dam projects. The third phase, which is to be executed in 2012, aims to invest in energy infrastructure and attract private-sector investment.

These insecurities have to urgently be addressed. U.S. signature projects in Pakistan are helpful but they are small scale and thus largely invisible, leaving talk of U.S. counterterrorism measures such as the drone strikes to dominate Pakistani perceptions of the United States. The United States can help by accelerating development in various sectors and beginning to shift the nature of its alliance with Pakistan.

For instance, greater assistance in the energy sector, such as the construction of the Diamer Basha Dam, which would be the highest roller-compacted concrete dam in the world and would provide much-needed electricity, agricultural support, and food security to the area. Currently, the dam is in its pre-construction phase, which has included priority land acquisitions and the creation of facilities such as housing for contractors and workers. Slated to be complete by 2019-2020, the Diamer Basha project is estimated to cost $13 billion. Pakistan will need to raise foreign investment and loans, such as from the Asian Development Bank, to finance the project. As Pakistan requests international assistance for the Diamer Basha Dam, the United States could increase its contribution to the project, aiding Pakistan in constructing its first hydroelectric mega-dam in almost four decades.

The United States could also move beyond aid and start to increase trade with Pakistan by easing tariffs on high-tariff Pakistani exports such as textiles and apparel, which would spur growth and create jobs in the country. This will not only allow America to garner greater support within Pakistan but also target factors that are currently threatening the well-being of millions of Pakistanis and undermining the stability of the state.

Inadequate investment in the Pakistani people by both Pakistan and the United States will continue to hinder security objectives in the country. The U.S.-Pakistan alliance cannot afford to disproportionately focus on military goals for much longer without further jeopardizing Pakistani stability. A partnership that attempts to more strategically address the concerns of hundreds of millions of Pakistanis will be better geared to work in favor of the Pakistani people, the stability of the Pakistani state, and long-term American security objectives.

Mehar Najeeb is a former intern at the Center for American Progress and is currently a senior majoring in political science and South Asia studies at Wellesley College.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.