US lawmakers seek cuts in Pakistan aid package
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In 2009, Congress passed with fanfare a five-year, $7.5 billion aid plan intended to prove Washington’s long-term commitment to Pakistan’s weak civilian government. Both countries touted the package as a way to reset relations long centered on military ties.
But two years later, only $500 million has been spent as the program has run into bureaucratic delays, disagreements over priorities, and fears about corruption. Now the remainder of the funding is under scrutiny in the Republican-led House, where two panels have approved broad cuts in foreign aid and stringent conditions on assistance to a number of countries, including Pakistan.
Although the Obama administration is fighting the cuts, US officials say they expect lawmakers to shrink the aid package while requiring greater evidence that Pakistan is fighting terrorism and that the funding is reaping benefits.
The debate over civilian aid has transformed it from a potential tool for healing the deep rift between the United States and Pakistan to yet another flash point in a relationship that has reached new lows in the three months since US Navy SEALs killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
In Pakistan, the slow start for the aid program - and the likelihood that the total amount delivered will be less than originally pledged - is reinforcing impressions of the United States as an unreliable ally, officials here said.
Many Pakistanis still resent the United States for cutting aid after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and the White House’s recent decision to withhold $800 million in military aid and reimbursement is being cited as a new example of American fickleness.
“You’re not going to get hearts and minds if aid’s given in dribs and drabs,’’ said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Additional cuts, even those resulting from belt-tightening in Congress, she said, “will be seen as punitive.’’
US officials say that the aid program, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman package for its three top congressional backers, has recently gained momentum and that their task is to increase the pace while tempering expectations.
But in Pakistan, the focus has been on the dollars spent. In an interview, a senior Finance Ministry official said lower-than-expected disbursements had contributed to an increase in the budget deficit.
Officials with the US Agency for International Development say that they did not receive funding for the program until September 2010 and that, including previously unused funds, the agency has spent more than $2 billion on civilian aid in Pakistan since late 2009.
The Obama administration pledged to channel about half the new money through the Pakistani government and local organizations, rather than international contractors. But identifying Pakistani agencies that have clean records and are competent has required months of audits and reviews, US officials said.
“There’s a danger that if we spend too fast, we’re going to spend irresponsibly,’’ said Andrew Sisson, the USAID mission director in Pakistan.