Democracy Gets Small Portion of U.S. Aid

Democracy Gets Small Portion of U.S. Aid

Two years before Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while leading her Pakistan People”s Party in its campaign against the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, the Bush administration devoted this much new aid money to strengthen political parties in Pakistan: $0.

The entire U.S. budget for democracy programs in Pakistan in 2006 amounted to about $22 million, according to State Department documents, much of it reserved for aiding the Election Commission — an entity largely controlled by Musharraf. That $22 million was just a small fraction of the $1.6 billion in aid the United States gave Pakistan that year, and it was equivalent to the value of jet engine and helicopter spare parts that Pakistan purchased in 2006 with the help of U.S. funds.

In the past year, as Musharraf”s grip on power became increasingly fragile, the Bush administration has scrambled to build contacts with the opposition and to provide expertise to opposition parties. The money devoted to democracy programs in the 165 million-person country was almost doubled in the fiscal 2008 budget, to $41 million, but that is still less than the $43 million set aside for such efforts in Kosovo, the former Albanian enclave of Serbia with a population of 2 million. In the region, U.S. democracy programs aimed at Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Egypt are all larger than the effort in Pakistan.

Former and current U.S. officials said the administration shied away from building a robust democracy program in Pakistan because it did not want to offend Musharraf, who after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was considered an ally against al-Qaeda. Now, the administration is seeking to persuade Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, to free democratic activists and lawyers and lift media restrictions to help make the legislative elections, currently scheduled for next month, appear credible.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month described Musharraf as “a good ally,” adding: “I hope that he is going to oversee the return of Pakistan to a civilian-led democratic state. They need to have free and fair elections.”

A recent study of aid to Pakistan by the Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated that, excluding covert funds, the United States has provided more than $10 billion to Pakistan since 2001, about half of that through poorly accounted “reimbursement” of expenses incurred in the war against al-Qaeda and Taliban.

Lorne W. Craner repeatedly lost battles over democracy aid for Pakistan when he was assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights during President Bush“s first term. “There was no interest in a broad and deep democratization program in Pakistan that might have given the United States more policy alternatives now,” said Craner, now president of the International Republican Institute, a democracy advocacy group.

“A decision was made to channel the limited funding in a way that avoided a risk of conflict with the government,” acknowledged a State Department official who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing internal decision-making. He said that the administration chose to focus on health care and education assistance, such as building clinics and classrooms, which he said have a quicker impact on people”s lives. “I would argue we did not make bad choices,” he said.

When the administration submitted its budget request to Congress last year, it made clear that the main goal of aid to Pakistan was building “a stable, long-term relationship.” The notion of creating what the document called a “moderate, democratic and civilian government” was a lower priority, signified by the fact that the democracy aid amounted to 5 percent of the total $785 million request.

“What is amazing to me about our policy is that Pakistan is brimming with a smart, educated, moderate center,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the foreign assistance subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “As long as we are pumping our money into security assistance and putting all our eggs in the basket with Musharraf, we are making a critical mistake.”

Challenged last month at a hearing chaired by Menendez on the administration”s aid priorities for Pakistan, James R. Kunder, acting deputy administrator of USAID, said, “We looked at what we thought were the underlying elements of fragility in the democracy and tried to design the programs around strengthening democracy in the long run.”

A USAID official provided statistics showing that the agency has devoted nearly $24 million to democracy programs for Pakistan since 2004, but almost 80 percent of that — $19 million — was earmarked for assisting the Election Commission, such as helping update nationwide voter rolls. Reports from Pakistan say the effort has been deeply troubled, with the new voter list believed to be highly inaccurate and missing the names of tens of millions of Pakistanis.

“I found it troubling that there was virtually no money until recently for any work other than the Election Commission, which was controlled by the president,” said Peter M. Manikas, director of the Asia programs of the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy group. He said the organization in June received a $1.5 million project from the State Department to train poll watchers and has received $2.6 million since 2002 from USAID for political party training.

“It is a relatively small amount of money, given the size of the country,” Manikas said, adding that the NDI has also raised about $1.5 million for Pakistan programs since 2003 from the Dutch, British, Canadians and the National Endowment for Democracy. “All of the eggs were put in the president”s basket, but the entire international community” was backing Musharraf.