WASHINGTON - Amid criticism of a lack of oversight on spending, the US has denied or deferred about $81 million in requests from Pakistan earlier this year, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
The rejection represents a small portion of the nearly $1 billion a year Pakistan has received through a programme called coalition support funds, launched after the Sept 11 attacks, The Los Angeles Times said in dispatch on the GAO report.
But it marks a sudden change in US policy toward Pakistan, which for years has spent American military aid without having to show results in the fight against al-Qaeda and other militant groups, The Times said, referring to the claim that al-Qaeda has been allowed to rebuild safe havens in the tribal areas. "Even some officials in the Pentagon have acknowledged shortcomings in US funding strategy," the dispatch said.
The programme was set up to reimburse the Pakistani military for offensives against insurgents along the Afghan border and assistance given to the US military operating in Afghanistan.
The Government Accountability Office study says the US has sent more than $5.5 billion to Pakistan under the programme, making it the largest portion of the $10.8 billion in US aid Islamabad has received since 2002. The study was the second by the GAO in a month to criticise US policy in Pakistan. In April, the agency said the Bush administration had not drafted a comprehensive plan to counter the resurgence of al-Qaeda and other militant groups in Pakistan's border areas.
Charles Michael Johnson, who wrote the GAO report, said the agency was still examining why the aid rejections have risen so sharply in recent months. But he noted that the Pentagon's representatives at the US Embassy in Islamabad had begun playing a larger role in the oversight of payments to the Pakistani military in the last year. About a year ago, Army Maj Gen James Helmly took over as head of the embassy division, known as the office of the defence representative to Pakistan.
A spokesman for US Central Command, which helps oversee disbursements, said he had not seen the report and could not comment on the programme. In a formal comment submitted to the GAO, James Shinn, the assistant secretary of defence responsible for Asia, said the Pentagon had been taking a tougher line on Pakistan's aid requests for some time. Of more than $85 million requested by Pakistan in September 2006, Shinn said, $6.2 million was turned down. Coalition support funds has come under scrutiny because the massive payouts to Pakistan have not been matched by significant progress against militant groups, The Times said. In private, US officials have acknowledged that they had little oversight of Pakistan's spending.
Under the programme, the US aid has paid Pakistan for costs incurred in staging military operations in the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas - operations that have been deadly for both sides, but have not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. US officials have said that Pakistan used much of the US military aid to pay for heavy equipment better suited for a regional conflict with India than for anti-insurgency operations in the frontier territories. Johnson, the author of the GAO report, said the agency was still examining where the military aid went and planned a more detailed account next month.
DEMOCRATS SHARPEN ATTACKS
Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats have stopped up their criticism of the programme, saying the GAO report showed mismanagement of the coalition support funds. "The Bush administration has basically been shoveling taxpayer money to Pakistan, no questions asked, crossing its fingers and hoping that our al-Qaeda problem goes away," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who heads a subcommittee that has been investigating the programme. "Our funding to Pakistan can no longer be a blank check." "The more I learn about this programme, the more convinced I become that it is the wrong approach," said Congressman John Tierney, another Democrat who is the chairman of the house oversight and government reform national security and foreign affairs subcommittee. Sen Tom Harkin, a Democrat, said future aid dollars must include "strict guarantees" that the money is being used for anti-terrorism and is making Americans safer. "They lack a plan, they seem to lack oversight and they do not seem very concerned about it," said Harkin of the Bush administration.