Spending billions no aid to U.S. image in Pakistan

Kahar Zalmay By Kahar Zalmay

The American government provides generous support to Pakistan. But that support does not, on the whole, translate into affection from ordinary Pakistanis. It will matter even less after the fatal NATO strike against a Pakistani border checkpoint last Friday.

By some estimates the US government has given Pakistani organizations almost $19 billion in aid since the 9/11 attacks. The majority of that aid, $12.6 billion, went to the military, with $6 billion given to civilian organizations.

But aid cannot help prevent widespread anger at the U.S. over a number of incidents in the past year. The death last week of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the wake of the NATO helicopter attack has sparked widespread anti-American protests in Pakistan — from flag-burning students to boycotting lawyers to the All Pakistan Oil Tanker Owners Association suspending NATO supplies.

Even before the NATO attack, those billions of dollars in aid produced sneers, not cheers, from many Pakistanis.

“When a major chunk of the US aid goes to military, how can I trust that Americans are interested in development of my area?” asks Nasir Jamal, a 25-year old studying social anthropology at Peshawar University. Jamal grew up in the mountainous northeast of Pakistan, an area Washington has called the global headquarters of al Qaeda.

“The general perception is that the U.S. helps the military to conduct their war against militants in Afghanistan,” Jamal says.

That perception might change now that NATO has attacked a Pakistani military outpost.

Jamal is particularly irritated by how U.S. civilian aid gets distributed, saying that the focus of the US-funded projects are out of synch with the on-the-ground reality. The Americans have, among other things, promoted women’s education, a priority that does not get a thumbs up from many locals. There are suspicions that there is, behind these projects, a hidden agenda against Islam and local traditions, Jamal said.

Nasir Jamal doesn’t smile much about the U.S. (credit: Kahar Zalmay)

Perhaps most surprising is that Jamal has personally benefited from American aid. In 2009 a U.S.-funded program let him spend two months in the U.S., visiting the University of Kansas and George Washington University as well as living for a week with an American family.

Despite his conservative upbringing and his madrasah years Jamal opted later for a more wordly approach. “Madrasah education doesn’t put food on your plate,” he said sitting at his Hujra (a traditional room for male guests). After his studies he hopes to do humanitarian work with a non-governmental agency.

When I talked with Jamal, he was dressed in Shalwaar Kameez, the traditional long tunic and pajama-like trousers, but noted that he only began to trim his beard recently. The militants who held sway for a period in his home town ordered men to grow their beards long, on pain of severe punishment.  Jamal also enjoys, by the way, Hollywood adventure movies.

Still, even before the NATO attack,, he was angry at the U.S. “The U.S. government wants to change a decades-old mindset in a matter of weeks and months at a time when CIA-launched drone strikes are breeding strong anti-Americanism,” Jamal said.

Ironically, the Army has itself promoted anti-Americanism to use as a bargaining chip with its American benefactors, says Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent defense and political analyst in Lahore.

If the U.S. wants to counter “anti-American sentiment,” Rizvi says, then the number of projects helping the common people need to be increased.

Azra Husain in her office, where you can’t miss the impact of USAID (Credit: Kahar Zalmay)

Azra Hussain runs Women Association Struggle For Development  (WASFD), a civilian organization in Mardan, about 80 miles north of of Islamabad. WASFD has received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which organizes humanitarian relief for the U.S. government. After the terrible August 2010 floods, the worst in 80 years,  Hussain’s organization gave grants to 120 women who had suffered losses in the flooding. The grants, worth 7,500 Pakistani rupees (about $85) each, helped them start businesses, ranging from a tailor to a stationery shop to a grocery store.

Donors are usually not disclosed, for fear of reprisals. But USAID wanted people to know that it was providing the money for these donations.

“We made sure that not only the recipients but the buyers at these small shops knew that the aid came from the people of the United States” she said.

The success of these businesses, shops run by women inside their homes, has helped change attitudes in this conservative society, attitudes like those of student Nasir Jamal. Hussain says “This was a revolutionary project transforming the whole community. Around 1,000 people benefited from this project, as an average family has 9 members.”

The project also mollified perceptions about the U.S in an area deeply hostile to the U.S. government. Hussain says that “when people realized that the US stood with them in their hour of need without asking anything in return or having any hidden agenda, the perception slowly started changing and now the whole community is grateful for the help.”

Friday’s attack won’t help the American cause in Mardan, but the USAID banner is still hanging proudly in Azra Hussain’s office.