One aim of US-Afghan-Pakistani summit: a parade for aid

Congress holds the key to billions in new assistance, but some lawmakers are skeptical it would diminish the terrorist threat.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama (center) said Wednesday that the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan share a common goal of dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies. He met at the White House with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (left) and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari (right).

The Washington visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is billed as a trilateral summit to advance the Obama administration’s strategy for battling the region’s Islamist extremists. But all three leaders also have another objective: convincing Congress to open up the purse strings.

Congress is now mulling over two hefty aid packages for what the Obama administration increasingly refers to as “AfPak.” After senior administration officials last week met skepticism on Capitol Hill as they argued for approval of billions of dollars in new aid for the two strategic allies, it’s now up to Mr. Karzai and Mr. Zardari to help out.

One of their objectives is to persuade US lawmakers worried about corruption and inept governance in Afghanistan – and about infiltrated security forces, shadowy relations with extremists, and vulnerable nuclear materials – that the new money is warranted and will be put to good use.

Congress itself has proposed some of the new aid, suggesting support for a robust US role in the region, some experts in Pakistan and Afghanistan say. But lawmakers are also adding conditions to the new assistance, a sign that Congress, shaken by security trends in both countries, is wary of repeating old patterns and wants to chart out a new direction.

“Congress understands the importance of the relationship with Pakistan – there’s a broad understanding of the importance of giving a new direction to our aid that reaches out to the people of Pakistan and builds a relationship with them over the long term,” says Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow in Asian affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But there’s also a strong sense that it can’t be aid as usual, so they want to see conditions.”

Multibillion-dollar aid packages

The first of the two packages is a $90 billion supplemental request for funding this year for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that includes nearly $1 billion in emergency aid to Pakistan. That money would include $400 million in new military aid, mostly for equipping and training Pakistani security forces for counterinsurgency operations. Also in the package is $500 million in economic aid to Pakistan and nearly $1 billion for economic development in Afghanistan.

The second proposal is a five-year, $7.5 billion aid package to Pakistan that would shift the emphasis of US assistance from the Pakistani military, where it was lavished during the Bush administration, to development and services-building projects aimed at improving the lives of average Pakistanis.

But the Pakistani military would not go begging under the Obama administration requests, which call for $3 billion in aid to Pakistan’s military over the next five years. Last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking on Capitol Hill, outlined a plan to basically use wartime powers in Pakistan to quickly move new Pentagon funding into providing counterinsurgency training and equipment.

In brief comments after the three-way summit, Obama said the US was fully committed to providing the military and economic assistance to defeat the three countries' common enemies. Flanked by Karzai and Zardari, Obama said the three nations were committed to working toward the day when they are linked "not by a common enemy" but by the free and prosperous lives of their citizens.

Blowing kisses to Congress

The two foreign leaders have made clear that part of their job here is overcoming congressional resistance to the increased aid.

The personable Karzai, a one-time darling of Washington, took care to review what US dollars have already accomplished in Afghanistan. “It’s important for American taxpayers to know the money they have spent has brought a lot of improvement to Afghan life,” he said in a speech Tuesday. He also said he plans to use the campaign before his August reelection bid to convince voters that he stands for a “strengthened partnership with America, which means more money from America.”

A subtler Zardari also made a pitch for increased US support, during a brief public appearance at the State Department Wednesday before going in to private talks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Karzai.

“My democracy needs attention and needs nurturing,” Zardari said. “Pakistani democracy will deliver, the terrorists will be delivered by our joint struggle,” he added, addressing criticism in Congress and elsewhere that Pakistan has not addressed the extremist threat head on. “Me, my friend President Karzai, and the United States ... will stand shoulder to shoulder with the world to fight this cancer and this threat.”

The State Department’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told Congress in testimony Tuesday that the US must support “unambiguously and help stabilize a democratic Pakistan.” Countering the growing feeling in Washington that the Zardari government is inept and ill-equipped to make the fundamental changes the country needs, Mr. Holbrooke said, “We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it is a state that is under extreme test ... from enemies who are also our enemies.”

Yes, but ...

Some House members, skeptical about how effective the billions in new aid would be, want to place conditions on the extra spending. The conditions, already being criticized in Pakistan, are a response to statements from US military officials that there continue to be “unhelpful” relations between the Pakistani security forces and extremist organizations operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, says the Heritage Foundation’s Ms. Curtis.

Members of Congress “want to ensure that US aid is not perversely undermining US objectives and security interests in Afghanistan,” she says.

The White House has criticized the proposed conditions – which include certifying that future US aid be provided only to a government in Islamabad constituted through a free and fair election, and that Pakistan demonstrate greater cooperation in safeguarding nuclear materials – as too rigid and unreasonable.

In response to Holbrooke’s testimony Tuesday, Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “We are simply asking the Pakistanis to keep the commitments they have already made to fight the terrorists who threaten our national security and theirs, and that they make some progress doing so, with progress defined very broadly.... Which of these conditions are unreasonable or unattainable?” he added. “And if they are, then what does that tell us about our relationship with Pakistan?

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