For several months now, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has been pushing for the United States to cut off foreign aid to Pakistan, which amounted to just over $2 billion in 2012. This week, as conservative Republicans propose a rethinking of aid to Egypt and Libya in the wake of anti-American attacks there, Paul is hoping to finally get a vote on his Pakistan proposal.
The senator has proposed cutting a total of $4 billion in foreign aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan, and told his Republican colleagues in a letter this week that he would filibuster the Senate’s business until his proposal was voted on. Paul’s threat came at a crucial time: the Senate, set to adjourn at the end of the week, has been rushing to finish its business, including the passage of a continuing resolution to fund the government for the next six months. Paul’s insistence on a vote for his bill raised the possibility that the continuing resolution would have to wait until this weekend, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to make a deal with Paul sometime today.
Cutting off aid to Pakistan has been something of a cause célèbre for Senator Paul, who since June has wanted to make aid conditional on the Pakistani government’s release of Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA locate Osama bin Laden. Last week, Paul even obstructed a fairly uncontroversial veterans’ jobs bill in an effort to move his Pakistan proposal to a vote. He was rebuked by Reid, who remarked, “”I respect the interest of the Senator from Kentucky in relation to Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, but every now and then the Senate should be able to focus on a small good thing.” John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also blasted Paul’s proposal, asking, “Whatever happened to the great commitment of the conservative movement in America to freedom and democracy and to help it develop? Just turn your back on it, pull the aid out? What the heck?”
Paul is only the most vocal of a number of proponents of cutting off Pakistani aid, an idea that has gained traction as US-Pakistan relations have deteriorated over the past two years. In November 2011, Republican Senator Mark Kirk proposed that the US halt aid until the Pakistani government stopped supporting the Haqqani network, a Pakistani group that aids the insurgents in Afghanistan. And this isn’t just a Republican issue, either: in fact, last summer the Obama administration cut $800 million in military aid after Pakistan, indignant about the Osama bin Laden raid, expelled American military trainers from its territory.
But there is good reason to believe that both the administration’s move and Paul’s proposal are snap judgments that ultimately will undermine U.S. security, because cutting off aid is likely to severely damage the U.S.’ already bruised credibility within Pakistan. Pakistanis have developed a deep mistrust of the United States – and our sporadic, unreliable aid policy is partially to blame. As the Center for American Progress argued in December:
“…repeated disconnects in [the] U.S.-Pakistani relationship… have produced a popular narrative in Pakistan that minimizes the value of U.S. contributions to its economic and military development, supports the belief that the United States is an unreliable ally with a different international agenda, and views attempts at cooperation with suspicion.”
That narrative is a problem, and many Pakistani experts agree. Last year, as the Obama administration contemplated cutting aid, a former Pakistani diplomat told the New York Times that alienating Pakistan was not in America’s strategic interests “at a time when it needs Pakistan’s help to defeat Al Qaeda and make an honorable retreat from Afghanistan.”
Paul’s proposal, then, is cause for worry, because Pakistan’s cooperation is needed if the U.S. and NATO have any hope of leaving behind a stable Afghanistan in 2014. Stopping aid would only increase Pakistan’s suspicion of U.S. motives, ultimately harming future efforts at a settlement over Afghanistan. And, of course, Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state with close connections to militant groups as well as a longstanding conflict with neighboring India. Given this, American lawmakers ought to be especially cautious when considering policies with the potential to destabilize Pakistan’s political situation or otherwise jeopardize U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Luckily, Paul’s Republican colleagues in Congress seem to be aware of this reality. Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on both the Appropriations and the Armed Services committees of the Senate, concurred with Kerry that cutting off aid would be ill-advised. “Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons that is hanging by a thread. I think it would be a very bad idea,” Graham said of Paul’s proposal, adding, “[n]ow is not the time to disengage.”