It doesn’t take much to stir controversy over America’s relationship with Pakistan. The latest dust-up involves $532 million in economic assistance that the United States expects to provide later in 2015.
Pakistani officials have jumped the gun by suggesting the money is closer to being disbursed than it is; the news annoyed India, which doesn’t think the aid is merited.
That is a familiar complaint. Since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help fight extremists. There are many reasons to have doubts about the investment. Still, it is in America’s interest to maintain assistance — at a declining level — at least for the time being. But much depends on what the money will be used for. One condition for new aid should be that Pakistan do more for itself — by cutting back on spending for nuclear weapons and requiring its elites to pay taxes.
Doubts about the aid center on Pakistan’s army, which has long played a double game, accepting America’s money while enabling some militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban who have been battling American and Afghan troops in Afghanistan. The relationship hit bottom in 2011 when Osama bin Laden was found hiding in Pakistan and was killed by a Navy SEAL team. But it has since improved. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Islamabad soon.
After militants massacred 148 students and teachers at an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan’s government promised that it would no longer distinguish between “bad” militant groups, which are seeking to bring down the Pakistani state, and “good” militant groups that have been supported and exploited by the army to attack India and wield influence in Afghanistan. But there is little evidence that the army has gone after the “good” groups in a serious way.
This double game is a big reason that the administration has been unable to fulfill Congress’s mandate to certify that Pakistan has met certain requirements, including preventing its territory from being used for terror attacks, as a condition of assistance. Instead, officials have had to rely on a national security waiver to keep aid flowing.
There is a case for doing that. After much foot-dragging, the Pakistani army is finally battling militants in the North Waziristan region, and American officials say there has been real progress.
Also, Pakistan has allowed American drone attacks against militants along the border to resume, and is cooperating with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. Pakistan’s help is essential as Mr. Ghani pursues peace talks with the Taliban. It also counts as progress that Pakistan completed a transition from one civilian government to another in 2013 and that the current government, while fragile, remains in place.
American officials say aid has allowed them to maintain some modest leverage with Pakistan’s leaders and to invest in projects that advance both countries’ interests, including energy, more than 600 miles of new roads and support for democratic governance. But it makes no sense to subsidize Pakistan’s policy failures, which include an obsession with nuclear weapons, paltry investments in education and a refusal to seriously combat extremism.
Pakistan still receives more assistance than most countries, a holdover from the days when Washington mistakenly thought it might be a real partner. But the levels are declining and should continue to do so. Cutting aid precipitously would be unwise, but a managed decrease is in line with more realistic expectations about the diminished potential for bilateral cooperation.