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Azeem Ibrahim

Azeem Ibrahim

Posted: December 1, 2010 05:41 PM

The deal President Bush struck with Pakistan's General Musharraf seemed straightforward enough: Pakistan would fight terrorists, and the US would pay for it. Islamabad promised to train, equip, and deploy its army and intelligence service in counter-terrorism operations. Washington promised to reimburse it with billions of dollars in weapons, supplies, and cash. And so, over the last eight years, up to $22 billion of US taxpayers' money flowed to Pakistan.

Last year I published a paper arguing that the results were nothing short of a scandal (download). There have been hardly any real counter-terrorism successes. The money has enriched individuals at the expense of the proper functioning of the country's institutions. And it has incentivized a co-dependency between the two countries to which, the WikiLeaks cables now reveal, US diplomats admit.

Pakistan's army is conditioned to regard its raison d'etre as defending Pakistan against India. Never mind that its foreign ministers meet each year, the last skirmish between the two was over a decade ago, and the last war much earlier. The idea that it should now spend money on fighting terrorists - many of whom of course are Pakistani - did not sit easily with them.

So they ignored it. Much of the US taxpayers' money was spent on conventional weapons which are useless against terrorists. As I revealed in the paper, it spent $200 million on an air defense radar system even though the terrorists in the frontier region have no air capability. It spent $1.5 million to repair damage to Navy vehicles even though they have no navy, either. $15 million was spent on bunkers that were never dug, $30 million paid for roads that were never built; $55 million to maintain helicopters that were not, in fact, maintained, and $80 million per month for soldiers to fight during periods when there was a cease-fire.

For most of this period, the US Department of Defense was given certain -- albeit insultingly limited -- information about this expenditure, and signed it off.

At the same time -- the Pakistani army seemed to remain badly equipped. One reporter found the Pakistani Frontier Corps "standing ... in the snow in sandals," another found soldiers wearing World War I-era pith helmets and carrying barely functional Kalashnikov rifles carrying "just 10 rounds of ammunition each."

The deal, it was clear, had not worked. The US was paying, but Pakistan was not fighting in any serious way.

My report was sent to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the National Security Council and State Department. I assumed such revelations would be controversial. After all, up to $22 billion of taxpayers' money had been at best misspent, at worst stolen. It is not a headline that any government or population is normally particularly happy about hearing.

So imagine my surprise when last month, the Obama administration announced another generous package of aid to Pakistan with no strings attached -- pouring more money into the black hole.

Well, this week it became clear why my previous report did not evoke a stronger reaction. And the truth is, in a way, even more alarming than the details of Pakistan's misuse of US taxpayers' money. The reason lawmakers did not seem surprised by the revelation was that they already knew exactly how badly your money was being spent. They just didn't want to tell you.

The WikiLeaks files reveal that Pakistan's General Ashfaq Kayani allegedly admitted to US diplomatic personnel that most of the funds the US had given to Pakistan for military purposes -- amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars -- had been 'diverted' to the federal government. This 'diversion' sounds like a polite way to refer to something which most people would call theft. Back in 2007, US diplomats already knew about multiple instances where this had happened, or where the claims that Pakistan made for reimbursement had been seriously inflated: $26 million was claimed for barbed wire. After spending $335 million on medical care and a fleet of 26 helicopters, the troops at the frontier still had no medical rescue service.

The leaks also show us who knew what, and when. It seemed that in January 2009, when the flows of funds from the US to Pakistan slowed down, General Kayani gave an explanation to General Petreaus as to why Pakistan kept needing more. The reason he gave? The federal government had taken it.

In an ideal world, the result of these revelations would be that taxpayers' money would stop being misused like this. But I think that in the current political climate, that is actually far too ambitious. Any politician who suggested such a thing would be accused of being soft on terrorists. And so I think that in the short term, the best we can hope for is that the American public begins to understand what the government is doing with their money in Pakistan, and that we have a debate about whether it is the right way to spend it. I would be intrigued to hear anyone argue that it is value for money.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.

Follow me on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)