Gains for Pakistan bear Kerry’s mark

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / April 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The president of Pakistan recently sent Senator John F. Kerry flowers. Pakistan’s powerful army chief spent three hours at Kerry’s house recently for dinner. And soon, officials in Islamabad will confer on Kerry the “hilal-e-Pakistan’’ — the highest honor given to a foreigner.

“Senator Kerry cares about Pakistan,’’ said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. “A lot of Pakistanis recognize that.’’

So does the White House. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry has been the president’s point man on providing billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan aimed at improving the US image there and strengthening the uneasy alliance with Islamabad. Both goals are considered essential for US success next door in Afghanistan.

As part of the funding offensive, Kerry has become a key architect of a policy shift away from strictly short-term, conditional payments to Pakistan’s military and toward long-term pledges of assistance to its citizens.

As a result, Pakistan is on track to become the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world, outstripping Israel, historically the largest recipient, according to preliminary budget documents the administration gave to Congress.

The Obama administration seeks at least $3.05 billion for Pakistan for the 2011 fiscal year, about half of which would go to a massive civilian package that Kerry steered through Congress. Only one country — Afghanistan — is slated to receive more: $3.9 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations.

The figures do not include covert CIA programs or Pentagon reimbursements and supplemental military aid that are expected to bring the final price tag for Pakistan to about $5.5 billion.

Some fear that the civilian aid — $1.5 billion annually for the next five years — will be wasted by Pakistan’s government, which has a reputation for corruption, or will be hijacked by Pakistan’s military, which has a history of coups and support for extremist groups that are considered terrorists in Washington.

Samina Ahmed, an analyst based in Islamabad with the International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy organization, said the civilian aid package is “crucially important’’ but thorny questions remain about how it will be used.

“Does it build civilian capacity?’’ she asked. “Or is it going to be diverted?’’

Supporters insist the aid — and Kerry himself — has helped rebuild trust with a critical ally. Last month, senior Pakistani officials held a series of high-profile meetings in Washington to showcase the new spirit of friendship and announce that some US funds would be used to fix three power plants and build roads.

“John Kerry has played an enormously positive role,’’ said Wendy Chamberlin, a former ambassador to Pakistan who is president of the Middle East Institute.

Military funds for Pakistan have also grown rapidly. The Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, which allows Pakistan’s army to buy everything from helicopters to night-vision goggles, has risen from $400 million in 2009 to $700 million in 2010, with $1.2 billion requested next year.

Although the figures are preliminary, they demonstrate a firmer commitment to Pakistan. Molly Kinder, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, which tracks US aid to Pakistan, said Washington had been seen as a “fair-weather friend and an inconsistent ally’’ because aid soared during the Cold War but dropped to almost nothing each time the Soviet threat receded.

In the 1990s, Congress passed bills prohibiting aid to Pakistan as lawmakers became increasingly concerned that Pakistan was building a nuclear bomb. But in 2001, the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration to try to foster a new friendship, giving Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, billions in payment for helping to fight the Taliban, a former ally.

But the war against the Taliban, and the United States itself, were deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Meanwhile, US officials accused Musharraf of taking US funds but continuing to shelter militants who were attacking American soldiers. US officials began to blame Pakistan publicly for attacks in Afghanistan. Trust between the two supposed allies evaporated.

To rebuild that trust, Kerry traveled to Pakistan in 2008 with Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden — then the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman — and Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. They returned with a plan to triple US aid to Pakistani civilians, who were demanding that Musharraf step aside to make way for elections, which took place later that year.

“We could sense the anger toward America,’’ Kerry said in a recent interview. “I felt very strongly that we needed to do something to reach out to the civilians.’’

Their colleague on the committee, Senator Barack Obama, supported the idea. In March 2009, when President Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, it included a request for a major increase in aid to Pakistan. Kerry worked diligently to turn that request into reality. And when congressmen wanted to attach language to the aid requiring strict accountability, Kerry hammered out a compromise that he thought would be less likely to offend Pakistan.

In September, the bill passed just in time for Obama to announce the package at the United Nations. But within weeks, the bill sparked a firestorm in Pakistan, as military leaders and opposition parties complained that some provisions insulted Pakistan and sold out the country.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the controversy was “probably orchestrated’’ by rivals of Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Kerry spent weeks repairing the damage. He flew to Pakistan to explain the bill, telling opposition leader Nawaz Sharif over dinner “that a lot of Americans are hurting now and would find good use for the money’’ if Pakistan doesn’t want it, Kerry recalled.

Now, most critics have turned their focus to how the aid should be spent. Pakistani military officials have pushed for big signature projects that could display US good will, such as a dam or a large power plant, while some civilian officials said such projects would take too long to build while urgent needs demand immediate action.

In a recent interview, Kerry expressed support for a signature energy project, as well as aid for people displaced by Pakistani military operations. He said he sees those operations, plus the recent arrests of Taliban leaders, as a sign that Pakistan has made a strategic decision to move against the militants, especially after a spate of suicide attacks targeting the Pakistani military. Kerry hopes the aid will bolster what he calls a “sea change’’ in Pakistan.

“We have not yet delivered some of this funding,’’ he said. “I’m pressing. We have got to get it out there.’’