Aid-for-Leverage Failed in Pakistan—It Won't Work in Egypt

Why hurling billions at generals gets us nowhere.

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gesture and shout slogans during a protest at the Rabaa Adawiya square where they are camping in Cairo on August 2, 2013. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

As the Egyptian army continued its violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood this week, White House officials said that the United States can't cut off its $1.3 billion a year in aid to Egypt. To do so would cause Washington to lose "influence" with the country's generals. Vital American security interests are at stake, they argued, and keeping the torrent of American aid flowing gives Washington leverage.

If that argument sounds familiar, it is. For the last decade, the United States has used the same logic in Pakistan. Washington has given $11 billion in military aid to the Pakistani army in the name of maintaining American "influence" in Islamabad. From new equipment to reimbursements for Pakistani military operations, the money flowed year after year, despite complaints from American officials that the Pakistanis were misusing funds and inflating bills.

Can the United States do better in Egypt? Pakistan and Egypt are vastly different, but as the Obama administration fervently embraces its Pakistan approach in Egypt, it's worth examining the results of its dollars-for-generals strategy.

A decade on, little has changed in Pakistan. The country's military continues to shelter the Afghan Taliban, hundreds of American and Afghan soldiers have died in cross-border attacks from Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, and the Pakistani army remains by far the most powerful institution in the country.

Yes, the government of outgoing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari performed poorly and mismanaged the country's economy. And it's wrong to assume -- or argue -- that an effective, efficient civilian government would emerge if Pakistan's army would give up its decades-old domination of the country.

But what did the United States get for its $11 billion? One goal of providing U.S. military aid was to get the Pakistani military to crack down on the thousands of Afghan Taliban who have lived, trained and planned operations from inside Pakistan since 2001. But so far that has not happened. Republicans and Democrats poured money into the coffers of the Pakistani military but it did not change the Pakistani military's long-running view that Afghan Taliban and other militants are useful proxies against Pakistan's arch-rival India.

American officials say the $11 billion did allow Washington to get what it most wanted: drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas that weakened al Qaeda and may have thwarted terrorist attacks in the United States. Pakistan's nuclear weapons also remain under government control. The drone strikes fuel bitter anti-Americanism in Pakistan, but the cold political calculus for any American president, officials argue, is preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland.

So far, the Obama administration appears intent on following the same aid-for-leverage approach in Egypt. The White House delayed the delivery of four new F-16 fighters to Egypt this week. But the fact that the Egyptian military has already killed 140 protesters -- twice as many as Iran did in its 2009 crushing of the Green Movement -- apparently gives administration officials little pause.

In a visit to Pakistan this week, Secretary of State John Kerry gave the administration's most full-throated defense of the Egyptian military yet. "In effect, they were restoring democracy," Kerry said in a Pakistani television interview. "The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment -- so far, so far -- to run the country. There's a civilian government."

Most importantly, the White House announced that the Obama administration would flout an American law requiring the U.S. government to cut off American aid to any government the carries out a coup. How? By ignoring it.

"The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination," a White House official told the New York Times. "We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say."

In other words, America will look the other way to maintain "influence" with the Egyptian military. One of the lessons from the last decade in Pakistan is that money might buy American officials a seat at the table. But Pakistani generals -- or Egyptian generals -- will not necessarily listen.

And they will definitely blame their problems on us. For the last decade in Pakistan, military officials have used pro-military media outlets to spread a message that an all-powerful United States is behind the country's ills. Some of the same patterns are emerging in Egypt. Pro-military Egyptian media blame the United States for the country's problems.

Dalia Mogahed, an expert on Egypt and the former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, believes the United States should take a more aggressive stance in Egypt. Providing $1.3 billion per year with few questions asked is not a recipe for change.

"We need clear conditions on aid that we actually follow through with," Mogahed said in an email. "We're dealing with military massacres of protestors. Our values and our interests dictate that we condition aid on the immediate halt of excessive force and holding accountable those responsible for it."

One administration official, who asked not to be named, argued that there was no alternative to Egypt's generals. If the Sinai, for example, becomes a safe haven for militants, they would pose a direct threat to Israel and the United States. The official said he was skeptical that civilian governments could emerge that could stabilize Egypt and secure the Sinai.

That is the same argument American officials have been making in Pakistan for years. The core question is simple: can democracy emerge in the region?

Putting conditions on our aid that require the Egyptian military to carry out elections will help answer that question. Hurling billions at generals will not. Pakistan has taught us that much.

This article also appears at, an Atlantic partner site.