A quiet waiver for Pakistan from the Obama administration

In September, the Obama administration waived conditions that would have halted $2 billion in aid to Pakistan on the grounds it hasn't made progress in fighting terrorism. Why? 'National security.'

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
A man rides his bicycle past fuel tankers, which were used to carry fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, parked along a roadside in Karachi, Pakistan, May 23.

On Sept. 13, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quietly, and without explanation, issued a "national security" waiver on conditions for Pakistan military aid.

While in years past the Obama administration asserted that Pakistan had made progress in combating terrorism, thereby meeting aid conditions set by Congress, that apparently simply wasn't possible after recent events:

Osama bin Laden was killed in a Pakistani city crawling with Pakistani military intelligence last year. The US had to keep Pakistan in the dark on the raid, worried the country's military would warn Mr. bin Laden. This year, a Pakistani doctor who helped the US track and kill the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington was sentenced to 30 years in prison by Pakistan for his role. In the US, the drumbeat of furious US officers, complaining of Pakistani support for the Haqqani network and other militants shooting at US forces, has gotten louder. And then there was the little matter of Pakistan shutting off NATO supply lines into Afghanistan for seven months, ending in July.

So, faced with the prospect that the sprawling US aid effort to Pakistan would be curtailed, Clinton and Obama took executive action. They essentially said Pakistan should get its money, conditions or not.

The country has received over $15 billion in US military aid and $8 billion in economic aid in the past decade, with the Bush and Obama administrations arguing that US money is buying a more stable and democratic Pakistan – and one that is committed to ousting terrorists.

That of course, has not been the case. Last year, Pakistan was the third most terrorism-plagued country, after Afghanistan and Iraq. And most independent assessments measure few long-term gains thanks to US largesse. In fact, some say US money is part of the problem.

"International, particularly US, military and civilian aid has failed to improve Pakistan’s performance against jihadi groups operating on its soil or to help stabilize its nascent democracy," the International Crisis Group wrote in a June report on aid to Pakistan. "Lopsided focus on security aid after the 11 September 2001 attacks has not delivered counterterrorism dividends, but entrenched the military’s control over state institutions and policy, delaying reforms and aggravating Pakistani public perceptions that the U.S. is only interested in investing in a security client"

In a frenzied election season, particularly one in which Republicans have been eager to cut into Obama's national security advantage over challenger Mitt Romney, the news of the waiver has been almost completely ignored. The press took no notice until the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service dryly noted Clinton's action in a paper released on Oct. 4. Even then, there were only a few scattered reports.

Where are the Republicans?

The president's political opponents? They've been too busy blaming Obama for the sacking of the US consulate in Benghazi to make much noise about a country that harbored bin Laden for years and arms elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Besides, Republican presidents keep Pakistan's military and economic aid flowing just as reliably as Democratic ones do. Rest assured, if Romney wins the White House, whoever he appoints Secretary of State will keep their waiver-signing fingers limber, a pen close to hand.

Why is this so? Well, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And it's close to Afghanistan, where both Obama and Romney are promising to wind down the war in 2014. And there are lots of “bad people” in Pakistan. The thinking goes that the bad people would be in a much stronger position if the US tried to use its financial leverage to get the Pakistani government to withdraw its support for the bad people. So instead, the US passes a bunch of laws that threaten to cut off aid if certain conditions aren't met, but makes it crystal clear to Pakistan that money won't actually be cut off no matter what Pakistan does.

Plenty of serious people do argue that US aid conditions antagonize Pakistan more than they modify the country's behavior. And they may have a point. But that's an argument for getting rid of conditions, not keeping ones in place that aren't ever enforced, a credibility destroyer of the first order.

The last time US aid was cut to Pakistan was in 1990, because of the country's nuclear program (that brief pause in aid, of course, did not stop the construction and test-detonation of a Pakistani bomb).

Despite evidence to the contrary

The US government has fairly reliably "certified" Pakistan as being in compliance with conditions despite all evidence to the contrary. Here's how the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service analyzed the state of play:

In apparent conflict with US government reporting on Pakistan's progress in the areas of counterterrorism cooperation came a March 2011 certification by Secretary Clinton as required under section 203 of the EPPA. In the wake of subsequent revelations that Al Qaeda's founder was living in plain sight in a Pakistani city, and with top US military officials persistently complaining that Pakistan has failed to take action against the Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], this certification was met with deep skepticism and appeared to many observers to be driven primarily political considerations rather than realities on the ground. When asked about the certification during an October 2011 House hearing, Clinton insisted she had 'closely considered the requirements set forth in the statute' and 'determined that on balance Pakistan had met the legal threshold. 

By mid-2012 however, conditions were such that a second certification under the EPPA appeared extremely difficult to justify. The November 2011 Salala border incident had spurred an angry Islamabad to close vital supply lines used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, and these remained closed for more than seven months until difficult negotiations finally resulted in their reopening in early July 2012 (in an apparent quid pro guo, Washington days later released nearly $1.2 billion in pending CSF payments). Despite this breakthrough, US-Pakistan relations remained uneasy and, with the fiscal year in its final quarter, the Administration faced having to make a decision on if and how to free planned FY2012 aid to Pakistan, given Congressional conditions.

The "EPPA" Is the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, a new approach to Pakistan that was trumpeted by Obama at the time of its passage. The essence of the bill, sometimes referred to as “Kerry-Lugar” after two of its sponsors, is that the US give a lot more aid to civil society groups, without conditions attached, and military aid to Islamabad – contingent on the government fighting terrorism.

Section 203 of the bill reads "for fiscal years 2011 through 2014, no security-related assistance may be provided to Pakistan in a fiscal year until the Secretary of State, under the direction of the president, makes the certification required."

What required certification? That Pakistan has made "sustained" and "significant" efforts in combating terrorist groups; that it has prevented Al Qaeda and the Taliban from operating on its territory; and that the "security forces of Pakistan are not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan."

But this year, neither Clinton nor Obama could make such certifications. In essence, the waiver acknowledges that the US is subsidizing a foreign military that in turn provides aid for US enemies. It’s an uncomfortable truth that few in Washington seem to want to discuss.

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