ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In 2009, Congress passed with fanfare a five-year, $7.5 billion aid plan intended to prove Washington’s long-term commitment to Pakistan’s weak civilian government. Both countries touted the package as a way to reset relations long centered on military ties.
But two years later, only $500 million has been spent as the program has run into bureaucratic delays, disagreements over priorities and fears about corruption. Now the remainder of the funding is under scrutiny in the Republican-led House, where two panels have approved broad cuts in foreign aid and stringent conditions on assistance to a number of countries, including Pakistan.
Although the Obama administration is fighting the cuts, U.S. officials say they expect lawmakers to shrink the aid package while requiring greater evidence that Pakistan is fighting terrorism and that the funding is reaping benefits.
The debate over civilian aid has transformed it from a potential tool for healing the deep rift between the United States and Pakistan to yet another flash point in a relationship that has reached new lows in the three months since U.S. Navy SEALs killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
In Pakistan, the slow start for the aid program — and the likelihood that the total amount delivered will be less than originally pledged — is reinforcing impressions of the United States as an unreliable ally, officials here said. Many Pakistanis still resent the United States for cutting aid after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, and the Obama administration’s recent decision to withhold $800 million in military aid and reimbursement is being cited as a new example of American fickleness.
“You’re not going to get hearts and minds if aid’s given in dribs and drabs,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. Additional cuts, even those resulting from belt-tightening in Congress, she said, “will be seen as punitive.”
U.S. officials say that the aid program — also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman package for its three top congressional backers — has recently gained momentum and that their task is to increase the pace while tempering expectations.
“It’s not about money, but we’ve made it about money. Instead, we should make it about things and people, so Pakistanis see clearly the impact of our aid,” a U.S. official said.
But in Pakistan, the focus has been on the dollars spent. In an interview, a senior Finance Ministry official said lower-than-expected disbursements had contributed to an increase in the Pakistani budget deficit.
Officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development say that they did not receive funding for the program until September 2010 and that, including previously unused funds, the agency has spent more than $2 billion on civilian aid in Pakistan since late 2009.
Moreover, U.S. officials said, the slow pace is necessary to ensure funds do not get siphoned off because of fraud or waste. The Obama administration pledged to channel about half the new money through the Pakistani government and local organizations, rather than international contractors. But identifying Pakistani agencies that have clean records and are competent has required months of audits and reviews, U.S. officials said.
“There’s a danger that if we spend too fast, we’re going to spend irresponsibly,” said Andrew B. Sisson, the USAID mission director in Pakistan.
U.S. officials say the aid package was designed to stabilize Pakistan by improving its power supply, schools and economy — not to win favor among the Pakistani public, which surveys show is strongly anti-American. But the plan has been subject to political pulls in both countries from the start.
After Congress passed the aid package in 2009, the powerful Pakistani military lashed out at some of the terms, including a requirement that the U.S. secretary of state certify that the civilian Pakistani government exercises control over the armed forces. American lawmakers are likely to impose more such conditions this year, U.S. officials said.
The United States also pledged to fund “signature” projects, particularly in the energy sector, to serve as symbols of American friendship. The Pakistani finance official, however, said that Pakistan is seeking even more “visible projects,” including $500 million for a dam in the north.
In Washington, lawmakers frequently complain that Pakistanis seem ungrateful for U.S. assistance. “It’s time for us to take a look at the money we’re giving away to Pakistan,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) during a House hearing last week. “The billions of dollars that we give them, what do we have to show for it?”
But efforts to win greater recognition for U.S.-funded projects — and with it, greater affection for the United States — have frequently fallen flat.
Security threats mean American officials often cannot visit project sites. Spending has been poorly explained to the public, according to a report by the D.C.-based Center for Global Development, which cited a “mystifying lack of information on what has been done.” And new requirements that aid recipients “brand” assistance with U.S. logos have prompted some organizations to decline funding.
“We wouldn’t want a grenade thrown into our office,” said Samina Khan, the chairperson of a Pakistani humanitarian network, explaining why she considered it too risky for her own organization, the Sungi Development Foundation, to seek U.S. assistance.
American officials say the program has sped up since a strategy was formalized this spring. U.S.-backed dam improvements will help add 500 megawatts of electricity to Pakistan’s failing grid, and education programs are helping to bring schooling to 900,000 students, they say.
“We’ve sharpened the focus,” Sisson said. “We acknowledge some delays, but we’re also very proud of our achievements.”
Criticism aside, some Pakistani officials say that the U.S. aid plan is making strides and that money must keep flowing. Simi Kamal of the Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organization, said USAID auditors rated her group as “high risk” when it first sought funding. To win a $40 million grant, Aurat undertook reforms — including investing in an expensive computer-based accounting system and hiring more qualified staff members — that she said were “tough” but helpful.
“You’ve got to let it run two to three years,” Kamal said of the decision to funnel more assistance through Pakistani institutions. “It was a step in the right direction.”
And in at least some corners, there are signs of appreciation. Last summer, USAID used $500 million to help Pakistan cope with ruinous floods. More than $60 million went toward seed and fertilizer for farmers whose crops were flooded out in villages such as Jangi, in the northwest, where anger pulsates over CIA drone strikes in the nearby tribal belt.
On a recent day, farmers in the village said they had expected to lose this spring’s wheat harvest. Instead, there was a bumper crop, and they attributed the success to U.S.-funded seeds and canals.
“Earlier, it was our perception that the United States was only for destruction,” said Noor Nabi, a community leader in the village. “But in that critical time, it helped us.”
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.