The question in the headline arose almost as soon as Americans learned our guys found and killed Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaida’s leader was hiding not far from Pakistan’s capital in a town called Abbottabad, where the country’s future military officers go to be trained and its past officers go to retire. There is speculation he may have lived in a large, walled compound there for up to six years.
Pakistan’s leaders, CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly told congressional leaders this week, were either “involved or incompetent” in allowing bin Laden to live securely right under their noses. The White House didn’t notify Pakistan’s government of the mission beforehand, worried that someone in Islamabad’s hierarchy would warn bin Laden and allow him to escape again.
All this, despite our spending billions on foreign aid for Pakistan. If our foreign aid dollars can’t buy competence or confidence, what are we buying?
Public opinion polls routinely list foreign aid among the most dispensable of federal spending programs (they also reveal the public thinks foreign aid takes up a far larger share of the budget than it really does, but that’s another story). The only surprise was that it took until Wednesday for a member of Congress to introduce a bill cutting off aid to Pakistan until its government proves it wasn’t sheltering bin Laden.
Foreign policy “realists” will point out that Pakistan is an unsteady nuclear power sandwiched between a country where we’ve spent much blood and far more treasure (Afghanistan) and one that ought to be a key American ally in the 21st century (India). Pakistani instability, they’ll say, would cost more than the $9.5 billion in foreign aid we’ve sent there during the past five years, according to the federal government.
There may be some truth to that — if we assume the same Pakistani leaders who abided bin Laden’s sanctuary would draw the line at letting terrorists acquire nukes. However, of that $9.5 billion:
The bulk of the money, which in 2009 equaled the annual income of almost 2.3 million Pakistanis, essentially went to prop up the political and military ruling class. This is the same political and military ruling class, remember, that was “either involved or incompetent” regarding bin Laden — and goodness knows how many other leaders and foot soldiers of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, just 6 percent of our aid to Pakistan since 2006 has gone toward “democracy, human rights and governance” programs — and just one-sixth of that pittance went expressly to non-government groups.
The Arab revolutions taking place across North Africa and the Middle East remind us that propped-up authoritarian regimes are only stable until they’re not. When the regime falls, the people know exactly who our billions supported. And it wasn’t them.
Pakistanis aren’t Arabs, and the government in Islamabad is somewhat more democratic than the ones overthrown in Cairo and Tunis. But, as in those countries, the military ultimately holds the reins in Pakistan. The stability we buy there is no sturdier than the peace we rented in those other lands.
The Arab Spring has not (yet) yielded a democratic bounty like the one after the Berlin Wall fell in Eastern Europe, where we invested in budding democratic institutions rather than thuggish regimes. As we see there, and now in Pakistan, it’s quite costly to buy allies who won’t even stay bought.
– By Kyle Wingfield