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Lining up for relief

Billions of aid dollars buy U.S. little goodwill in Pakistan

The army and aid organizations struggle to cope with the severity of a disaster that has killed more than 1,600 people and displaced millions.

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By Griff Witte
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

TARBELA, PAKISTAN -- Everyone here remembers the Americans.

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They came with their blueprints, their engineering know-how and their money. By the time they left in the early 1970s, they had helped build a world-class dam that kept parts of Pakistan dry this month while vast stretches of the country drowned.

"This dam gives great benefit to the nation, and if not for the Americans it would never have been constructed," said Syed Naimat Shah, a local contractor.

But Shah hasn't seen any new assistance from the Americans in decades, and apparently many Pakistanis haven't, either. The U.S. government has provided about $18 billion in civilian and military aid to Pakistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made this country America's most essential, and vexing, ally. Yet according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month, half of Pakistanis believe the United States gives little to no assistance here.

For Obama administration officials, that's a source of deep anxiety -- and frustration. Pakistan is at the center of U.S. hopes to turn around the flagging Afghan war, but persistent anti-American feelings limit the extent of Pakistani cooperation. On her visit to Pakistan last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mused that Americans must wonder "why we're sending money to a country that doesn't want it."

Pakistanis insist they are not ungrateful. They just don't see any tangible impact from the massive sums the United States spends. Unlike assistance from decades ago, the money from the post-Sept. 11 era, Pakistanis say, tends to vanish without a trace.

"Everyone here hates the American government," said Shah, a spirited 71-year-old with a stark white beard and a sharp tongue. "I haven't seen a penny of this U.S. assistance."

Analysts say there are many reasons: poor coordination with the Pakistani government, a lack of understanding of Pakistan's needs and a reluctance to produce iconic projects, lest they become targets for terrorists.

"American assistance is always of a nature that is not seen or felt," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. "How many dams were built? How many highways? Can you touch anything that was built with U.S. assistance?"

U.S. officials say aid money is making a positive impact, if not always a widely noticed one. Since Sept. 11, Pakistan has ranked among the top five recipients of U.S. civilian and military aid, in a group with Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. But they acknowledge the overall criticism and say they are fundamentally changing the way they spend taxpayer dollars here.

The $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar civilian aid package, passed by Congress late last year, is providing the first big test. Unlike in the past, the money will be routed directly through Pakistani agencies and institutions, and officials say the results will be far more visible.

But already, there have been delays that could keep the money from making an impact anytime soon.


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