America Diary: Washington’s worries

What it would be like if the US stopped all aid to Pakistan?

Our Special Correspondent April 13, 2011

I have often wondered what it would be like if the US stopped all aid to Pakistan.

At a discussion held in the Centre for Global Development in Washington DC, the talk was all about how Pakistan can better utilise American aid. There is talk about a cash-on-delivery system – which I will call the McDonald’s model of aid disbursement – whereby cash will be paid once the Pakistani government shows results.

But I have often wondered why is it that the US is keen to give aid to Pakistan despite the fact that the Pakistani government almost never tries to ensure fiscal discipline that the donors yearn for.

Let us take our taxation system. Every month a hefty amount is taken from my pay package. Why can’t most Pakistanis pay tax? All you have to do is get everyone to give their Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) number when making payments. Gather all the data and you have a fair idea of what the person is spending.

In the energy sector also, there is no effort by the government to plug the holes. What ‘line losses’ means is that we have not reined in our linemen who sell power to consumers through the kunda system. How hard is that to fix?

I feel that US aid, as well as money from other donors, only helps prolong the wasteful expenditure and huge military bills that we amass. Maybe if we had our own money only, belt tightening would be easier.

But there is a lobby for the aid that we cannot ignore and they will not let us say no to US taxpayer largesse.

It was with these thoughts that I met Dr Stephen Cohen, the historian and academic who tells us that both Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt General Ahmad Shuja Pasha have served as his protocol officers while he was writing about the Pakistan Army. He praises Pasha, who he says is more of a soldier than an intelligence person.

Along with Dr Cohen, the roundtable organised by the East West Centre’s Washington DC office included Colonel Hammes who once served in the US Marine Corps and now works at the National Defence University. It also included Dennis Kux, who has extensively written about Pakistan. Hammes makes an interesting point about the Pakistan-Afghan border which is as long as the US-Mexican border: “If the US cannot seal its border with Mexico, how can we expect Pakistan to do the same with Afghanistan?”

In the evening, we are part of a panel discussion on rising extremism in Pakistan. I make the point that the media is under pressure from all sides, which is a point understood by many.

My friend Endy Bayuni, former editor of The Jakarta Post, asked me a typical journalist question. It is a good moment; sometimes only journalists understand journalists. Bayuni is taking leave from his job, he says. “I have had enough of being editor,” he tells me.

Someone asks me whether I see hope for Pakistan. I say if the democratic dispensation is allowed to continue, then yes I am hopeful.

In attendance were journalist Huma Yusuf, who was part of daily Dawn, The Express Tribune’s Washington correspondent Huma Imtiaz and Aliya Salahuddin, the bright young woman who now works for a media NGO in Washington DC.

There is the usual talk about the ISI’s role, Pakistan-US relations and safety of journalists. Satu Limaye, director of the East West Centre in Washington, asks whether there is one thing that Washington should not do in Pakistan. I say it should not send journalists who come from leading Western publications, spend two days in Islamabad, talk to the same circuit of people and go back and write pieces about our country that are taken seriously by both analysts and policy makers.

Pakistani papers also do poor reporting of the US. There is need for better reporting on both sides, says our coordinator Susan Kriefels. I could not agree more.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th,  2011.


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