Our Money in Pakistan

Richard Holbrooke is getting serious blowback for his efforts to radically reshape U.S. aid programs in South Asia's most dangerous state. But maybe he's onto something.

Of the many levers Obama administration officials have installed on the mighty console that is AfPak strategy, the one to which the least attention has been paid is almost certainly the civilian assistance program in Pakistan. If journalists are embedding with USAID operatives in the vast, Taliban-plagued province of Baluchistan, not many of us have heard about it. And yet senior U.S. officials, most prominently Vice President Joe Biden, regularly note that Pakistan, with its 180 million people and nuclear stockpile, matters to the United States far more than Afghanistan. Thanks in no small part to Biden, who pushed legislation to massively increase civilian aid, Congress last fall passed the so-called Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorizing the expenditure of $7.5 billion in Pakistan over the next five years. Nowhere else does so much hang on the success or failure of development assistance.

And in few other places has the United States spent so much money so thoughtlessly in the past. In The Idea of Pakistan, historian Stephen P. Cohen concludes that decades of U.S. aid strengthened the hand of Pakistan's Army without making it pro-American and had economic consequences no less ambiguous, bolstering elites and self-appointed middlemen. And just as White Houses in the past had given Pakistan's rulers lavish rewards for support in the Cold War, so George W. Bush's administration gave the country's military $10 billion in barely supervised funds in exchange for pledges of support in the war on terror -- pledges that were honored more in the breach than in observance. Bribery is one rationale for foreign aid -- Hans Morgenthau, that pitiless realist, argued that it was the only sound rationale -- but not when the party in question refuses to stay bribed.

Bribery, in any case, is no longer enough. The AfPak strategy constitutes a recognition that U.S. national security now depends upon producing internal change in states -- the kind of change development assistance (as opposed to, say, regime change) is designed to bring about. One of the least plausible aspects of that strategy is the expectation, in Afghanistan, that the "civilian surge" will have begun making a difference by the time U.S. troops begin to draw down, in mid-2011. The Pakistan policy requires no such short-term miracle; indeed, the five-year time frame of Kerry-Lugar-Berman is meant to signal to Pakistanis that the U.S. commitment will not be episodic, as it has been in the past.

The money will start flowing in the next few months, and when it does, it will look very different from the aid program of recent years. Congress has earmarked $3.5 billion for "high impact, high visibility infrastructure programs" -- power plants, highways, water treatment facilities, and the like. In recent decades, aid dogma has focused on "capacity building" rather than the building of things. Now it's China that constructs dams and railroads in Africa (and Pakistan) -- and gets the credit for it. Leaving aside the respective merits of these two approaches, people can see the effect of dams a lot more easily than they can the effects of "technical assistance." When Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, first began traveling around the country, he and his team got an "earful," according to a State Department official, from Pakistanis who said that U.S. aid was effectively invisible. "Our aid was not supporting our political objectives," he told me. That is, it wasn't making a dent in the overwhelming hostility that many citizens feel toward the United States, which is a huge handicap in persuading Pakistan to confront the militants.

But will building big things that make people's lives better really improve the United States' image in Pakistan? Doing so hasn't done much good in Egypt, where no one seems to thank America for the roads it has built and the electricity it has provided. (More than 60 percent of Egyptians -- and 90 percent of Pakistanis -- said in a poll last summer that the United States abuses its power to "make us do what the U.S. wants.") Anti-Americanism in much of the Islamic world is structural: Leaders enhance their shaky legitimacy by lashing out at Uncle Sam, and people eager for a scapegoat find one in the United States (or Israel). American policy, or American aid practices, serves as a handy pretext. Still, it is in the U.S. interest to remove that pretext as far as possible: Let's build some power plants and see what happens.


The other thing Holbrooke heard was, "You never ask us what we need; you just do these programs that you think we ought to have." This is a longstanding lament, and both the Kerry-Lugar bill and the administration's AfPak strategy stipulate that Pakistanis will play a much larger role in choosing, executing, and monitoring projects than they do now. In part because improving relations with Pakistan is so central to his job, Holbrooke immediately began rejecting contracts USAID had drawn up with U.S. contractors. That didn't sit well with some; a senior USAID official, C. Stuart Callison, wrote an anguished memo to Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department, claiming that the new policy was "shockingly counterproductive" and would subordinate development goals to political considerations.

Political considerations, in a way, are just the point. Aid that harms America's standing -- because Pakistanis see it as highhanded -- is a bad idea even if it works. But it's also true, as Callison wrote, that aid policies that don't produce real change inside Pakistan scarcely advance President Barack Obama's overall counterinsurgency goals. Can America do both? Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan has a real state, a real middle class, a real civil society. But it's hard to find independent actors in so deeply feudal a society. Brian Katulis, a regional expert at the Center for American Progress, says that though going through local NGOs and local government bodies is "the right instinct," he's skeptical that U.S. officials will be able to navigate the political interests of local players to choose people who will actually perform.

Holbrooke is prepared to err on the side of Pakistani engagement. How, after all, can you build local capacity unless you ask people to take responsibility? More to the point, this is what it means to incorporate development assistance into larger foreign-policy goals: If Obama is to overcome the terrible failure of trust with Pakistan, he must not treat Pakistanis as hapless objects of American charity. Pakistan, as the State Department official noted, "has forced a serious re-evaluation of the relevance of aid to our foreign-policy objectives."

Whatever the United States was doing before didn't work for Pakistan, and didn't work for America. Clearly, it's time to try something else. The danger, though, is that Holbrooke will find a way of helping the U.S. image in Pakistan, and thus advance key national security goals, without really producing change inside the country. Perhaps, therefore, Pakistan should force the United States to re-evaluate aid policy even further. Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, argued in a recent op-ed that aid will continue to fortify Pakistan's deeply entrenched elites unless the United States finds an entirely new way of delivering it; she proposed inviting a wide array of groups and individuals to bid for aid projects, much as the Obama administration is now doing in the education world with its $4.3 billion grant program known as Race to the Top.

A more far-reaching proposal comes from the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank that has proposed (pdf) that funders sign contracts with recipient states in which both sides agree on a specific desired outcome -- say, increasing the reach of basic health services by a fixed percentage -- and then the donor leaves the government wholly free to reach the outcome in any way it sees fit. The donor begins to pay only when the government begins to show results. (A mutually-agreed-upon third party audits the recipient's progress.) "Cash on delivery aid," as authors Nancy Birdsall and William D. Savedoff have dubbed the idea, offers accountability for donors, autonomy for recipients, and transparency for citizens of both countries. A corrupt or incompetent government -- Pakistan's, for example -- could fail to hold up its end of the bargain. But are Americans really prepared to hand over scarce resources to such a state -- even if doing so helps their image?


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Terms of Engagement

Surge Incapacity

Let's face it: America just isn't very good at nation-building.

The United States' first "civilian surge" took place in August 1901, when 500 teachers disembarked from the USS Thomas, a converted cattle ship, in Manila Bay -- "the men wearing straw boaters and blazers," according to journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, "the women in long skirts and large flowery hats. Like vacationers, they carried baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical instruments, cameras and binoculars." America's colonial enterprise was new: Only a few months had passed since the Army had subdued a fierce insurgency and commenced governing the Philippines. The Thomasites, as this proto-Peace Corps came to be known, had responded to an advertisement placed in newspapers across the United States.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) no longer have to put ads in the papers to assemble a civilian force for the state-building effort now under way in Afghanistan, but it's remarkable how haphazard, and almost frantic, the system remains. "It's a numbers game," a USAID official told me, "a body game." Only a few of the 400-odd civilians USAID has hired so far have either language or technical skills; most are either eager youngsters or post-career officials from the military, State, or USAID. Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state who is overseeing the process, says that "it's proved incredibly difficult to take on such an urgent challenge when you don't have a deep enough bench."

As an American, this is perplexing. Why do we not have a deep enough bench -- or any bench at all to speak of? We used to have one, even after we ceased to be a practicing colonial state. Tens of thousands of civilians -- most of them serving in the Army -- governed Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II and left behind effective democratic states. The "strategic hamlet" program in Vietnam -- the core of the effort to win "hearts and minds" -- involved more than 1,000 civilians, most from USAID. But after the Vietnam War, both the military and the political leadership recoiled from the idea of counterinsurgency and "small wars." The Powell Doctrine stipulated that the United States would fight big wars or none at all, thus effectively eclipsing the space between "war" and "peace" where in the past it had deployed a civilian force.

The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence. In 1997, Bill Clinton's administration issued a presidential directive designed to systematize the civilian-military response to such emergencies. The reserve civilian force envisioned by the plan was never brought into being. And George W. Bush's administration arrived in office ideologically opposed to state-building; Bush's first national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, sneeringly declared, "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

And then reality reared its ugly head. The fiasco in Iraq demonstrated even to the ideologues that you couldn't win the war unless you won the postwar as well; and the postwar required civilian capacity. In April 2004, the National Security Council established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to orchestrate postwar operations. Carlos Pascual, the first director (and now ambassador to Mexico) drew up a plan to field a rapid deployment force of civilian specialists backed by a pool of 3,000 reservists. The cost of building the quick force and deploying it for three months would be a paltry $350 million a year. The money was put in the State Department's budget, and then cut by the White House. As Pascual explained to me several years later, the Pentagon believed in the new force, but the civilian agencies, ironically, did not. The civilian force died yet another death.

The Pentagon under Robert Gates has continued to be an advocate for an "expeditionary" civilian capacity. In a 2007 speech, Gates pointed out that the 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers couldn't quite man a single aircraft carrier strike group. Gates called for "a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills" -- a remarkable proposal coming from a defense secretary. The Army already has thousands of its own such experts, but recognizes that the fundamentally political questions raised by state-building, or even disaster relief, require civilian authority and a civilian perspective.

The office of reconstruction and stabilization was finally funded in fiscal year 2009; its Response Readiness Corps has now recruited 78 officials, plus 554 on standby. This will not take you far in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the office is not expected to play an important role in staffing either theater. Even the thousand-odd civilians now being thrown into the breach in Afghanistan are spread very thin on the ground: A "district support team" may have half a dozen civilians quartered with, and escorted by, 300 Marines -- this in a country of more than 28 million spread across an area about the size of Texas. The civilians, while no longer carrying tennis rackets, are scarcely as well grounded in their jobs as the Marines. A 2009 report by the National Defense University (NDU) notes, "Stabilization has to be led by teams of professionals who specialize in that work, train for it, and develop plans and doctrines for expeditionary operations in the same way that the military plans for crisis interventions."

The distribution of resources is just as skewed as the distribution of manpower and preparedness. A State Department official told me that in Kunar province, in the east, the military commander had $150 million to spend on local initiatives, while his USAID counterpart had just $10,000. A military officer is, of course, going to spend that money to support military objectives: If the local warlord makes himself useful, he's probably going to get his share of that money no matter how much the locals hate him.

Officials in the Obama administration suffer none of their predecessors' hostility or ambivalence toward the tools of soft power, very much including the civilian force. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been adamant about reclaiming some of the capacities, and some of the authority, that in recent years have migrated to the Pentagon; and her belief in the centrality of development to American national security dictates a far more prominent role for USAID. There has been a slew of studies in recent years advocating enhanced civilian capacity; most of the authors recommend situating that capacity not in State, which is a policy rather than an operation agency, but in some expanded and fortified version of USAID. The NDU study proposed the establishment of a cabinet-level Agency for Development and Reconstruction.

The administration is now seriously contemplating such questions in its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Lew, who is running the review, says that before officials figure out where to locate the new corps, they have to ask themselves, "What capabilities do we need?" One operation may require 100 agronomists, but if the next demands 100 hydrologists, do you really want to hire all those experts instead of knowing where to find them? What "core capacities" must the government retain? If you need to be able to both rapidly deploy and sustain a presence over time, so that public health experts don't go home after three months -- as they do now -- does that require two different forces?

The searing experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has made many Americans doubt the U.S. capacity to do much good at all abroad. That skepticism is a necessary corrective to the airy fantasies of a few years ago, but it's also a new kind of hyperbole. The Thomasites, four-fifths of whom, by the way, had prior teaching experience and thus more or less knew what they were doing, not only established a national school system in the Philippines, but offered the most benevolent possible face to America's colonial enterprise. They didn't leave a working democracy in their wake, but that's not what we're asking of the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan either. We are hoping they will help tip the scales of Afghan public opinion toward the government rather than the Taliban. Even that might be too much to ask. But it would be a shame if we failed because we hadn't taken the responsibility seriously.

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