US to seek greater accountability of Pak funds

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

WASHINGTON, November 19 : With the Pakistani Government in turmoil, senior Pentagon officials quietly are moving to overhaul the massive US military aid system to the country by more directly tying the payments to the country’s success at combating Islamic militants.

Pentagon officials also want to require Pakistan to provide detailed accounting of how it spends more than $1 billion in annual payments and to allow greater control by the US over future spending.

The steps would fundamentally change one of the Bush administration’s signature relationships of the post 9/11 era, when it forged an alliance with the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf against Islamic extremists and began providing huge sums with little oversight.

The Pentagon is focusing on the largest and most controversial aid programme, known as the Coalition Support Funds. The proposal to link payments to specific objectives would revamp the current practice of reimbursing Pakistan for money it says it spent.

In more traditional military aid programmes, US assistance is subject to a series of legislative controls that occasionally require presidential action for money to be released. By contrast, the post 9/11 Coalition Support Funds have few reporting requirements, beyond the claims submitted by the Pakistanis.

“Back-door subsidies is what it can look like to some more skeptical observers, because there hasn’t been good oversight and the amounts involved have been so great,” said a Government official, who tracks military payments to Pakistan.

Pentagon officials have been frustrated for months by having only limited knowledge of how Pakistan was spending the US aid and are being pushed by congressional criticism and revelations that Islamabad is not using the money as the administration intended. US officials must know “exactly where it goes” and “have more say” in Pakistan’s use of American aid, said a senior military official directly involved in the programme.

“If I could craft it to allocate those resources to do specific things, I’d have a priority list of where I’d like to see it applied to,” the official said. But proposals to cut back on US support for Pakistan are not universally popular throughout the Bush administration, where many people view Musharraf as a valuable ally, who is committing his military forces to US objectives, often with heavy costs.

Pentagon officials emphasised that their concerns and the push to overhaul the military aid programme predate the current upheaval in Pakistan.

Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for foreign aid, said he plans a hearing soon to press the Bush administration to explain how money is being spent in Pakistan.

“The administration hasn’t been overly forthcoming, and I don’t know why,” he said. “If they’re not forthcoming because they don’t really have the type of accountability that we should be getting from the Pakistanis, then we need to deal with that.”

Part of the difficulty in achieving greater accountability and other reforms, Western observers say, is that the Pakistani military is hamstrung by its own highly centralised bureaucracy. One Western military official said it takes inordinate amounts of time to accomplish straightforward tasks such as scheduling meetings or inventorying equipment. He blamed the Pakistani military’s “antiquated” and top-heavy command-and-control structure.

The lack of detailed accounting has been central to congressional objections. Army Lt Col Brian Maka, a Pentagon spokesman, said Congress has 15 days to object to payments made through the Coalition Support Funds. In addition, the Pentagon’s comptroller’s office submits quarterly reports to Congress outlining how much has been spent. But copies of the reports show Congress is given only broad descriptions of spending.

Occasionally, specific expenditures are detailed, such as the two-year lease of 26 Bell helicopters in 2003 for $235 million. But most descriptions are more general.