A $46 million dollar American development program in Pakistan's tribal regions has made little progress since it began in 2008, according to a government audit that shows the challenges facing Washington as it prepares to boost aid there to blunt the appeal of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Also in the Afghan border region, security forces battled militants on Friday in a third day of battles that the government said had killed 44 suspected insurgents. The clashes were taking place in Bajur, an area the Pakistani army declared free of militants in early 2009 after a major offensive.
Pakistan has launched a series of operations against militants in the tribal regions, pushing them back in some areas. But the United States wants the army to continue pressing the fight because Taliban fighters in Afghanistan use the region as base from which to attack NATO and US forces. It says stabilizing Pakistan and getting it to crack down on militants in the northwest is key to success in Afghanistan, where Washington is sending 30,000 extra troops in a final attempt to turn around the war.
The US is also believed to have launched a slew of missile strikes against suspected Taliban and al-Qaida targets in lawless Pakistani tribal areas, especially the North Waziristan region where militant groups blamed for launching attacks on American troops across border are based.
A suspected missile attack hit the Mohammad Khel area of the region early Saturday, killing five people, two intelligence officials said. The identities of the victims were not immediately known, they added.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
As well as urging force, the Obama administration has authorized the dispersal of $7.5 billion in development assistance from American taxpayers over the next five years to convince Pakistanis their interests are best served by the state, not by extremists. The $46 million program audited by the office of the inspector general was set up to strengthen government institutions and local aid groups in the tribal regions. It is training staff, installing computer systems and running other projects that should help future aid money be spent more effectively.
The program is being run by Development Alternatives Inc, an American firm that won the contract offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The audit, dated January 28 and posted on the USAID Web site, found that "little real progress" toward the program's stated goals had been made in the first 22 months of the 36-month program. It said the program had so far only spent $15.5 million.
It also criticized elements of the program's planning and implementation. It said a plan to install computers and train staff to use them at the tribal region's secretariat in the northwestern city of Peshawar had barely gotten off the ground, noting 340 of the 400 computers delivered there remained in boxes and unused.
The audit said work had been slowed by the deteriorating security situation in the northwest. All foreign staff working on US government projects were withdrawn from Peshawar after a US aid worker was killed there in 2008, making work much more difficult. It also blamed a new American government initiative to direct money through the Pakistani government and aid groups, not foreign for-profit contractors like DAI. The shift is reportedly an effort to address local demands that as much money as possible is spent on locals and hence stays in the country.
As a result of the new strategy, which has yet to be fully implemented, it said DAI did not know whether its contract would be terminated, meaning many key programs were put on hold. The audit said the contractor had requested $15 million in June 2009 from the government to continue with the work, but was only given $4.7 million.
The audit did mention some successes, such as the creation of a public outreach campaign promoting peace and 74 project and financial management training events held for more than 1,000 government workers.
US Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said USAID was working to implement the recommendations in the audit. He blamed the security environment as well as the very weak state of the institutions in the northwest to begin with.
There was no independent confirmation of the fighting or the identities of the dead in Bajur, a tribal region where al-Qaida and Taliban have long had a presence. Abdul Kabir, the top-ranking official in Bajur, said several troops had been injured in the fighting in the Slarzai area.
He said the clashes began Wednesday when troops began helping a council of tribal elders in evicting Taliban from the area. He said 21 militants were killed Friday, following 23 killed in the two preceding days.