WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has rejected or deferred millions of dollars in military aid requests from Pakistan amid criticism that the Islamabad government has squandered U.S. funding and allowed Al Qaeda to rebuild a haven in its western tribal regions.
In February, the Defense Department turned down or delayed more than $81 million requested by Pakistan, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The rejection represents a small portion of the nearly $1 billion a year Pakistan has received through a program called Coalition Support Funds, launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But it marks a sudden change in U.S. 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. Even some officials in the Pentagon have acknowledged shortcomings in U.S. funding strategy.
The program was set up to reimburse the Pakistani military for offensives against insurgents along the Afghan border and assistance given to the U.S. military operating in Afghanistan.
The Government Accountability Office study says the U.S. has sent more than $5.5 billion to Pakistan under the program, making it the largest portion of the $10.8 billion in U.S. aid Islamabad has received since 2002.
The study was the second by the GAO in a month to criticize U.S. 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 Jr., 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 U.S. 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 R. Helmly took over as head of the embassy division, known as the Office of the Defense Representative to Pakistan.
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which helps oversee disbursements, said he had not seen the report and could not comment on the program.
In a formal comment submitted to the GAO, James J. Shinn, the assistant secretary of Defense 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. In private, U.S. officials have acknowledged that they had little oversight of Pakistan's spending.
Under the program, the U.S. 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.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the terrorist network has been able to use its haven in the remote tribal lands of northwestern Pakistan to regroup and rebuild its ability to plan attacks against targets in the West.
U.S. officials have said that Pakistan used much of the U.S. military aid to pay for heavy equipment better suited for a regional conflict with its archenemy 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.
One congressional official who tracks U.S. aid said that the increase in aid denials suggested that U.S. officials had become more rigorous.
"But I wouldn't necessarily say 'problem solved,' " said the official, who discussed the politically sensitive program on condition of anonymity. The deferred or rejected amounts still represent only "a small fraction of the total that was allowed," the official said.
Congressional Democrats said 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 Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads a subcommittee that has been investigating the program. "Our funding to Pakistan can no longer be a blank check."