06/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Super-Embassies and How the United States Chooses Security Over Aid

If this story sounds familiar, it's because this has all happened before. Recently, Pakistanis learned that almost half of the $1.9 billion approved by the US House of Representatives for aid will instead go toward "a new secure embassy and consulates" in their country. Of course, the United States has good reason to fear for their security in the region.

"Having a secure embassy and consulates is understandable considering that in 1979 the American embassy was burned down," says Ibrahim Warde, author of The Price of Fear. Thirty years ago, an angry mob burned down the embassy, killing a US marine. According to the BBC, "the five-hour siege began as an organised student protest," but grew violent when protesters pulled down part of the embassy's wall and stormed inside. The US blamed the Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, for inciting the violence, and in turn the Ayatollah cast blame upon the US for occupying Islam's holiest site, the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

In 1979, the protesters burned down the embassy. Now, the United States intends to build another one, this time a super-embassy. McClatchy reports that the Obama administration is offering another sign of its intention to expand US presence in the the region by embarking on a $1 billion "crash program," which will include "a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital."

The idea of building an even bigger embassy in Pakistan is unwise, says Warde. First, there is the small problem of using half of US-approved Pakistani aid ($900 million) for the new secure embassy and consulates. Warde explains, "there is some symbolism in building what is perceived as a fortress, at the expense of...humanitarian aid."

Pakistan badly needs that aid because poverty is one of the principle causes of destabilization and terrorism, according to many experts on the region. Author and historian, Tariq Ali, believes poverty is the biggest threat to peace in Pakistan. "The United Nations development figures for Pakistan show that over the last twelve years, 60% of the children born in Pakistan are born severely or moderately stunted because of malnutrition," says Ali, adding that many poor Pakistanis send their children to be educated by the Taliban because they cannot afford to feed or educate them through any other means.

Second, when a region is viewed through what Warde calls the "security prism," non-security funds are always considered a way of providing support to security goals. Basically, aid for food and education instead goes to giant embassies. The US may also be reallocating funds because it views local Pakistani charities with a fair degree of suspicion, explains Warde. While he believes there is tremendous potential in the use of private aid, the US de facto criminalization of Islamic charities makes it difficult for private aid to reach Pakistani communities.

Very few people in Washington understand that Zakat (almsgiving) is one of the five pillars of Islam: it is an obligation for every Muslim to donate part of their income to the poor and the needy. Money goes instead to the informal and underground sector, and may well end up in the hands of insurgents. Home-grown charities have a role to play. Yet if you look at much of what is said on the subject of charities, almost always by ideologically motivated so-called experts, Zakat is reduced to a tool to fund jihad, and the term Islamic charities has become a synonym for terrorists.

The US's solution to the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan is to build higher walls. If that sounds familiar, it's because that was the US plan in Iraq. In McClatchy, Khurshid Ahmad, a member of Pakistan's upper house of parliament for Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the country's two main religious political parties, calls the super-embassy plans a "replay of Baghdad." Ahmad continues, "This (Islamabad embassy) is more (space) than they should need. It's for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia."

Students of history must realize that building mega-embassies siphons aid away from areas that could potentially help stabilize Islamabad and the Middle East. Ironically, by building embassies in foreign countries, the US is actually making its soldiers there - and civilians back home - less safe by angering indigenous peoples and exposing America to the risk of blowback.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.