The debate over the US $7.5 billion (over five years) Kerry-Lugar Bill – The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act – passed by the U.S. Senate late September seems to have have generated great confusion, bemusement, anger and frustration. Sometimes, all at the same time.
The headlines in only today’s The News tell us, for example, that the Pakistan Army considers the Bill to be an "insult," that Pakistan’s Prime Minister sees it as a "big success for democracy," that India is "upset" about it, and that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is chiding the Bill’s critics to "read the Bill first." Even as the entrepreneurial classes in both Washington and Islamabad dream up big plans and salivate at impending windfalls, it is difficult to tell whether it is the political pundits in Washington who feel more insulted or the political pundits in Islamabad. Suffice to say, both are seething with anger, even when it is not at all clear why.
The Kerry-Lugar Bill is a five year commitment for up to US $7.5 Billion for developmental assistance, with up to US $ 1.5 Billion available each of the next five years, which amounts to a tripling of the U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan. Responding to what has been a call of many Pakistanis over many years, it directs this assistance towards civilian, and especially infrastructure, uses and not towards military aid. It also tries to respond to the fears about corruption by the bureaucracy and politicians by asking for strong oversight over use and effectiveness.
So, what is there not to like about the Kerry-Lugar Bill? Speak to the Bill’s proponents in Washington and they will ask you: "Isn’t this exactly what you guys have been asking for all along? More money. Money for civilian development projects. Money that will be accounted for and used properly. So, why aren’t you all dancing in the streets and hugging us in gratitude?" Many Americans are clearly feeling insulted because what they see as a case of their generosity not being appreciated.
For its critics the answer is straight-forward and can be summarized in one word: conditionality. The critic’s wrath is not really about what the Kerry-Lugar Bill promises; it is about what the Kerry-Lugar Bill demands. Call it concerns about sovereignty, about imperialism, about national pride, or whatever else, but many Pakistanis are clearly feeling insulted because they think they have been presented with a ‘bill of demands’ and being asked to sell out cheap.
One can dissect things deep in search of hidden meanings and clues. Too many people are already doing that and it really does not help. The problem is deep. But it is not hidden.
The debate we are now seeing is one more manifestation of the deep deficits of trust that have marked all US-Pakistan relations. In the absence of trust, Pakistanis – even those who might otherwise support this Bill – simply refuse to accept that America could possibly be interested in Pakistan’s interests. For the very same reasons, Americans – even those who strongly wish to see a stronger Pakistan – simply refuse to acknowledge the intensity with which Pakistan has always sought "friends, not masters."
The fact of the matter is that if the U.S. had any trust whatsoever in the Pakistani state or the Pakistani people, this Bill would not have been crafted in the language it is. By the same token, if Pakistanis had any trust whatsoever in the United States their reaction would not have been what it is even if the Bill were written as it is. The US-Pakistan relationship is a most reluctant international relationship. The Kerry-Lugar Bill is a good example of this. Here is support that the Americans would much rather never have been ‘made’ to give to Pakistan. Here is support that Pakistanis would much rather never have been ‘made’ to accept.
And herein lies the real problem of Pakistan-US relations. Neither trusts the other. Each can give many reasons – and some of them, in each case, are very valid – why, but that matters little. The result is a tainted and reluctant relationship.
When I visit Pakistan, I am often asked: "What do Americans think of Pakistan?" In USA, I am often asked "What do Pakistanis think of America?" The answer to both questions is exactly the same: "They think of you exactly what you think of them. They don’t really like you, they certainly don’t trust you, but right now they think they need you."
It is no surprise, then, that there is no US-Pakistan ‘relationship’; there are only US-Pakistan transactions.
Here is a Bill that should have been, and still could be, used as a means to build that trust. The trust without which this relationship will forever be tainted, reluctant and prone to constant frustration. If the two sides (and it really is about what both sides do) continue to look at this as a transactional episode – of services provided and paid for – then five years from now Americans will find themselves asking what the point of spending (‘wasting’) all this money was, and Pakistanis would be heard questioning whether they would have been better off never having accepted this largess. Both have been there before and both are likely to end up being there again.
On the other hand, if – and this is as big an ‘if’ as you will ever find in international relations – the two sides really do get past the ugliness in the discourse right now and use this opportunity to move from transactions to a relationship then, as Humphery Bogart said in the movie Casablanca, this could well become "the start of a beautiful friendship."
But for that to happen, too many things would first have to change in both Islamabad and Washington. At this point, unfortunately, it is not clear at all that either is interested, or capable, of those changes.