Doubts surround U.S. aid plan for Pakistan

$750 million targeted to win over young tribesmen

December 25, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Weeks before it is to begin, an ambitious U.S. aid plan to counter militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas is threatened by unresolved questions about who will monitor the money and whether it could fall into the wrong hands, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials and analysts familiar with the plan.

The disputes have left many skeptical that the $750 million five-year plan can succeed in competing for the allegiance of an estimated 400,000 young tribesmen in the restive region, a mountainous swath of territory left destitute by British colonialists and ignored by successive Pakistani governments.

Today, the Taliban, al-Qaida and other foreign militants use the area as a base to fuel violence and instability in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan and to plot terrorist attacks abroad.

Critics of the aid plan say the region is rife with corruption, and even Pakistan's 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 from top to bottom.

The civilian aid program 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 U.S. military aid to Pakistan annually - much of which does not make its way to frontline Pakistani units, some U.S. officials now acknowledge.

The tribal area for which this new money is intended remains so unsafe that no senior U.S. official has visited in the past nine months.

In fact, wary of corruption and hamstrung by local hostility, U.S. 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 corps, have yet to gain traction.

The new program is meant to start slowly, with the first portion of the overall program 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 be in the tribal areas is equally uncertain.

Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, where large numbers of U.S. soldiers are on the ground to 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 past few years, and heavy fighting has flared again in recent weeks.

The region remains so dangerous that it is virtually off-limits even to U.S. military officials and civilians who would oversee the programs. The Pakistani authorities have ruled out using foreign nonprofit groups, known as NGOs as shorthand for nongovernmental organizations. But neither do they approve the U.S. 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 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 program money. "Forty-eight percent of the program money goes to consultants," he said.

Rick Barton, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, or AID, 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 percent to 50 percent of a program's entire cost, depending on the scope and difficulty of the task, he said. And this task is indeed difficult.

The region of 3.2 million people has no industry, virtually no work and no hope. Men ages 18 to 25, who are the target of the program, find offers of 300 rupees a day from the Taliban - about $5 - attractive.

The men, almost entirely of the Pashtun tribe, 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."

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