US to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year - with strings attached

Some Pakistanis, especially in the military, say the conditions violate their country's sovereignty and interfere with the civil-military power balance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A new package of US aid to Pakistan – designed to encourage the country's transition from military to civilian rule while dampening public interest in extremist Islam – faces heated criticism for what some Pakistanis see as an effort to dictate the country's path.

Cries of violation of Pakistan's sovereignty have echoed across the capital of Islamabad in recent days. The cries have come as word has spread of the "certification" requirements that Pakistan will have to meet to receive $1.5 billion a year in American assistance over the next five years.

Among the requirements: The secretary of State must certify to the US Congress annually that Pakistan's security forces are cutting ties to extremist organizations and that a democratically elected government "exercises effective civilian control of the military." Specifically, the State Department must report on civilian oversight of the military budget process, military involvement in civilian affairs, and even the nitty-gritty of how senior military officers are promoted.

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For a country where the military remains the strongest bulwark against instability, and where anti-Americanism was already on the rise, the requirements are increasingly criticized as going too far.

The response to the US aid package is also seen as complicating the path of the pro-American government of President Asif Ali Zardari – not exactly the impact US officials envisioned.

"The response in Pakistan demonstrates the difficulty of trying to come up with a rational and effective policy on Pakistan when the country itself is so divided," says Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

The aid package, passed by Congress last week, awaits President Obama's signature – considered a formality, since Mr. Obama cosponsored the legislation before leaving the Senate. But Obama could presumably attach a presidential statement to the legislation interpreting its specific measures in an attenuating manner.

The $7.5 billion package seeks to redirect US aid away from the Pakistani military, where aid was focused under previous US administrations. And it is widely considered a reflection of the "Pakistan first" vision of Vice President Joe Biden – in other words, more of the US focus shifting from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the battle with Al Qaeda and militant Islam.

Some US officials have said privately that the Obama administration was taken aback by stinging criticism of the package in Pakistan. That's because the pieces of the legislation have been discussed for a long time, and the bottom line is a tripling of aid.

But Ms. Curtis of Heritage says no one should have been surprised, especially by vocal discontent from some in the military, given there are provisions that "they say interfere with their country's civil-military power balance."

Some Pakistan experts worry that by setting out to weaken the role of the military, the United States risks weakening the one institution that has stood against deepening chaos in a fragile nuclear power. Indeed, the Obama administration has concluded during recent reviews of what is called the "Af-Pak" challenge that Pakistan has actually fared better than anticipated over recent months, some officials say, with the country getting good marks in particular for offensives against extremists in the Swat Valley.

In a delicate transition period for Pakistan, Curtis says, too much meddling by the US could backfire.

"After having spent $15 billion over the last eight years on Pakistan, I'd say we are totally within our bounds to have the secretary of State certify that Pakistan is breaking its linkages to these extremist groups," she says. "But we need to steer away from provisions that seek to determine who has what power in the country. The Pakistanis need to decide for themselves how the power balance works out."

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