American aid plan for Pakistan tribal areas under a cloud over fears of misuse

American aid plan for Pakistan tribal areas under a cloud over fears of misuse
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 11 35 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 11 35 PM IST
Weeks before it is to begin, an ambitious American aid plan to counter militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas is threatened by important unresolved questions about who will monitor the money and whether it could fall into wrong hands, according to American and Pakistani officials and analysts familiar with the plan.
The disputes have left many sceptical that the $750 million (Rs2,962.5 crore) five-year plan can succeed in competing for the allegiance of an estimated 400,000 young tribesmen in the restive tribal region, a mountainous swathe of territory left destitute by British colonialists and ignored by successive Pakistani governments. Today, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other foreign militants use the area as a base to fuel violence and instability in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan and to plot terrorist attacks abroad.
Critics of the aid plan say the region is rife with corruption, and even Pakistan’s own government has limited reach there. But the risk of leaving it isolated and undeveloped is greater than ever. This month, Bush administration officials acknowledged they were reviewing their Afghan war plans top to bottom.
The civilian aid programme would provide jobs and schooling, build 600 miles of roads and improve literacy in an area where almost no women can read. It adds to the more than $1 billion in American military aid to Pakistan annually—much of which does not make its way to frontline Pakistani units, some American officials now acknowledge. The tribal area for which this new money is intended remains so unsafe that no senior American official has visited it in the last nine months.
“My sense is they are ready to start, but who is going to be responsible for management?” said representative John Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is one of several members of Congress who have begun pushing the state department for details of how the civilian aid will be monitored. They said they had not received satisfactory answers. The importance of the issue, they said, was underlined by the scores of investigations into corruption connected with huge amounts of money and equipment for reconstruction and strengthening Iraq’s army and police forces that cannot be accounted for.
“We’re not quite certain about it,” Tierney said. “I have concerns that it not be a repeat of situations in Iraq.”
In fact, wary of corruption and hamstrung by local hostility, American officials say that as in Iraq, they will rely heavily on private contractors to administer the development aid, a decision that could eat up as much as half the budget. Other proposals, such as training a civilian conservation corp, have yet to gain traction.
The new programme is meant to start slowly, with the first portion of the overall programme out to bid at $350 million. Among the handful of companies invited to bid are DynCorp International and Creative Associates International Inc., both of which won substantial contracts in Iraq. How effective they will bein the tribal areas is equally uncertain.
Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where large numbers of American soldiers offer some protection to aid projects, the Pakistani authorities tightly control access to the tribal areas. The Pakistani military has suffered hundreds of casualties trying to subdue the area in the last few years, and heavy fighting has flared up again in recent weeks.
The region remains so dangerous that it is virtually off- limits even to American military officials and civilians who would oversee the programmes. The Pakistani authorities have ruled out using foreign non-profit groups, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). But neither do they approve the American choice of private contractors. They would like the money to go through them.
“We are living in times when NGOs are considered to be all out to convert tribesmen,” Javed Iqbal, until recently the additional chief secretary of Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as the region is formally called. The title is a holdover from the British era.
“To deal with the tribesmen, you have to understand the tribes,” Iqbal said. “You cannot ask a woman how frequently does she take contraception, which was one of the questions on an NGO questionnaire. The first reaction is they are going to box you in the face, and then tell you to get lost.”
But Iqbal said he was convinced that the for-profit companies would take a disproportionate amount of the programme money. “48% of the programme money goes to consultants,” he said.
Rick Barton, a former official at the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, who now works on Pakistan issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the estimate was in the ballpark.
Development firms commonly charge 25-50% of a programme’s entire cost in profit and overhead, depending on the scope and difficulty of the task, he said. And the task is indeed difficult.
The region of 3.2 million people has no industry, virtually no work and no hope. Men aged 18-25, who are the target of the programme, find offers of 300 Pakistani rupees a day —about $5—from the Taliban attractive.
The men, almost entirely Pashtun, have little in common with the rest of Pakistan. Their Pashtun brethren live in the southern part of Afghanistan, astride a border that is extremely porous, allowing extremists to move easily back and forth.
“They are going to find pockets of opportunities,” Barton said. “But will it be a lot of nice things that won’t add up to much? Probably.”
The hostility to Westerners has become so intense in and around the tribal areas that an Austrian refugee worker said she was barred early this month from walking through a refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar that she had regularly visited for the last six years.
Westerners, she said, are believed to be implicated in what Pakistanis see as an American foreign policy that is anti-Muslim and harms Pakistani interests.
“I offered to cover myself in a burqa, and to wear their kinds of sandals,” said the worker, Mechtild Petritsch, who works with the Frontier Primary Health Campaign. “But they said I would be discovered because I walk like a foreigner.”
Nor has the new director of USAID in Islamabad, Anne Aarnes, been able to visit the tribal areas. It was nine months ago when the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, Peter Bodde, went to Khyber, one of the seven divisions of the tribal areas, to address the local Chamber of Commerce. A planned visit by the new US ambassador, Anne Patterson, was cancelled last month because of sectarian violence in the area.
“This is an extremely difficult undertaking in an extremely difficult part of the world,” said a senior American official at the US embassy in Islamabad after the presentation of an embassy PowerPoint slide show attended by nearly a dozen embassy officials. “Something like this hasn’t been tried on this scale in this part of the world.”
The presentation listed the range of programmes involving USAID, the narcotics section of the state department and, to a small extent, the Pentagon. Besides providing jobs, schooling and roads, the American plan also calls for improving the “capacity” of the local Pakistani authorities so that the government becomes a more viable and friendly force in everyday lives.
That is an extremely challenging ambition because the government’s representatives, known as political agents, run their areas with an iron fist and are almost uniformly corrupt, Pakistani and American officials say.
Moreover, the power of Islamic religious leaders in the region has grown in part because President Pervez Musharraf has undercut the authority of political agents, viewing them as competition, Pakistani officials said.
Now the Americans are trying to build up the political agents again and use the development projects to improve relations between them and local communities.
Concerns about corruption are so severe, however, that the first grants will be held to only about $25,000 each, to finance small projects like repairing water wells and small sewage plants.
In an illustration of the challenges facing even modest programmes, experts point to the three-year-old plan by USAID to repair 60 rundown schools. Because of deteriorating security, even local contractors were too scared to work in some places. Only 35 schools have been completed, USAID officials said. Some of them remain bereft of teachers. Several are known as “ghost schools” because they are used for other purposes.
One successful school in the Mohmand tribal district demonstrates both the need and the potential for success, however. Enrolment there had shot up to 217 students from 21, according to an American official, who sent a Pakistani employee to scout the situation.
Because the US is viewed with such opprobrium, it will not be identified on any of the aid, preventing any possible flow of goodwill. The aid will instead be presented as Pakistani. That, said a senior US embassy official, would help the Pakistanis feel like owners of the effort.
“This is about teaching them how to get smart about how to run the country and win people’s support,” the official said. Asked what he thought of the American goal to improve the “capacity” of the administration of which he is a senior member, Iqbal, the Pakistani official, who attended college in the US, replied, “Bunkum.”
To complicate matters further for the Americans, Iqbal, who had been their main interlocutor on the programme and who by current standards is quite understanding of the American goals, resigned early this month for an unrelated reason. American officials said his departure represented a setback for them.
From their side, the American consultants often display a high degree of scepticism about the Pakistanis. A senior official for one of the contracting firms in Pakistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, suggested a way to monitor the money up close, but which is unlikely to be acceptable in the tribal areas.
In Afghanistan, the contractor shared a compound with the provincial governor. “That worked pretty good,” he said. “You’ve got to co-locate with the government officials. We get pushed back, but youmake it happen. They don’t like it because it means they can’t steal.”
©2007/ The New York Times
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 11 35 PM IST