US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent two days in Islamabad last week to conclude the second round of US-Pakistan Bilateral Strategic Dialogue and then participated in the international donors’ conference in Kabul. During her Pakistan visit, she announced the US decision to spend $500 million for civilian sector development, a sum that is part of the US aid package of $7.5 billion to the country on a five-year basis. While in Kabul, she reiterated the US concern on accountability of the international donors’ assistance to Afghanistan.
The process of moving US-Pakistan cooperative relationship to strategic level was initiated in late March, when Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders, led by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi held the first round of the Strategic Dialogue with their US counterparts in Washington, DC.
It was during the debut round of the first-ever ministerial level dialogue between the two countries that a Policy Steering Group to intensify and expand bilateral strategic cooperation was created. Moreover, 13 topical working groups were established to deal with several areas of civilian and security cooperation, including economy and trade; energy; defense; security, strategic stability and non-proliferation; law enforcement and counter-terrorism; science and technology; education; agriculture; water; health; and communications and public diplomacy.
For several weeks since the start of June, US and Pakistani policy makers and field experts concerned with each of the above-mentioned areas of strategic cooperation held in-depth discussions in Islamabad to finalize the specific projects pertaining to water management, health, agriculture, education, economics and finance, access to markets, energy, science and technology, communications, women’s issues, law enforcement and defense.
For instance, the working group dealing with the issue of water management was able to develop a list of mutually agreed upon priorities to tackle the significant water-scarcity threat Pakistan faces. Areas of concern include irrigation systems, safe drinking water and sanitation, conservation and developing a sustainable infrastructure for managing the country’s water supply.
Likewise, the working group concerned with the energy sector considered short- and medium-term solutions to remaining energy shortages, as well as long-term measures such as increasing private-sector investment in energy in the country. Several of the groups focused on economic issues, concentrating on agriculture, economics and finance and access to markets. At least two working groups explored ways to increase cooperation on defense and on law enforcement to combat terrorism. So on and so forth.
The outcome of these intensive deliberations is largely positive, as the two countries are now moving from generalities to specifics, or, more precisely, from rhetorical expressions of strategic partnership in recent months to actually implement the various projects of extreme socio-economic significance for Pakistan in the immediate future.
Among others, the projects cover major sectors such as energy, agriculture, education and the exploration of natural resources in the country. A significant chunk of the $500 million US assistance is meant for developing these sectors. This includes the financing of a multi-year Signature Water Programme to improve Pakistan’s ability to increase efficient management and use of its scarce water resources and improve water distribution. The first phase of the programme would cover seven projects costing over $270 million.
As for the specific projects in this area, the US would help Pakistan construct Gomal Zam Dam, Satpara Dam irrigation project and small dams in Balochistan province. Take, for instance, the Gomal Zam Dam. It would store water to irrigate 190,000 acres in South Waziristan, Tank, and Dera Ismail Khan to control flooding, preventing an estimated $2.6 million annually in damages, and enhance agricultural opportunities for approximately 30,000 farming families.
The US would also support a public-private partnership in the country designed to improve the status and ability of women to manage agricultural business and the programme would focus on providing technical training for Pakistani women to manage dairy-related enterprises and do business both domestically and internationally.
An amount of $100 million is allocated for the Small and Medium Enterprise Access to Finance Program, which aims to improve the availability of financing for private sector entrepreneurs and create jobs in Pakistan, with a focus on less economically advanced regions of the country. An additional amount of $120 million is allocated for four programmes to assist Pakistanis affected by conflict to re-establish their lives in their home areas.
All of these projects-specific US pledges to Pakistan are important, as they break the recent past tradition of leaders of the two countries only talking about undertaking such projects to win the “hearts and minds” of the people affected by terrorism, while doing nothing on the ground to snatch the initiative from the terrorists. Since extremism thrives on real and perceived grievances of the people, it is important for various projects of public welfare to be actually visible. Only then we can expect a credible transformation in public perception about America and its relationship with Pakistan.
After all, “trust deficit” is not overcome with mere talk. And overcoming it insofar as the historical context of US-Pak relationship is concerned, is a mutual venture. For its part, Pakistan would have to strive hard to meet the due expectations of the Obama Administration. It is a good omen that the past few months have seen the security relations between the two countries to a more pragmatic level, whereby Pakistan is increasingly being perceived by not just the United States but also by the rest of the international community as an essential “part of the solution,” when it comes to fighting the sources of terrorism in the region.
That explains why the Afghan regime led by President Hamid Karzai has in recent months started to reach out to Pakistan for its help in bringing about political reconciliation with the forces of insurgency in Afghanistan. Obviously, the principal condition for such reconciliation will be the renunciation of violence by the insurgent groups—a point that was re-iterated by President Karzai and Ms Clinton during the Kabul conference. For its part, the United States is keenly interested in strengthening Afghan-Pak ties. It was for the same purpose that the new Transit Trade agreement between the two countries was concluded in Islamabad, with visible US backing.
Perhaps the highlight of the Kabul conference was President Karzai’s announcement that the Afghans wanted to have responsibility for their own security by 2014, and more control over the international aid that is piped into the country. That move is largely compatible with the recent policy pronouncements of the US and its NATO allies battling the Afghan insurgency. They also want the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to train and develop at a faster pace so as to pave the way for the withdrawal of foreign troops. However, insofar as the issue of Afghan control over foreign aid is concerned, the United States and other international donor states and institution will continue to stress on greater accountability of the aid inflow “to assess the progress that has been made so far,” as Ms Clinton said during the conference.
The issue of accountability is also relevant to the US civilian assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar Berman Act. Probably that is why there is so much emphasis on projects-driven aid this time. There is no harm in such assistance, if its eventual gain is to secure in almost 13 sectors of social and economic progress of the country what its successive governments have utterly failed to. This, however, does not mean that our diplomatic effort should not aim at ensuring greater market access for our textile exports to America---especially given that fact that out of $18 billion of our exports, $14 billion worth reportedly head for the American market.