US aid to Afghanistan shrinking with military footprint; aid officials want gradual decline

Civilian assistance to Afghanistan was always slated to shrink with America's military footprint, but U.S. aid officials were caught off-guard when Congress, upset by testy relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, slashed civilian aid by 50 percent this year.

War-weary lawmakers, content with the level of Afghan aid already in the pipeline, backed the cut, but officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development warn that reducing aid too quickly is risky.

They argue that if U.S. aid to Afghanistan continues at this precipitous drop, it will jeopardize gains in education, health care and other civilian programs Afghans need to regain their footing after three decades of war. Obama administration efforts to keep aid levels from plummeting, however, are going up against political pressure from those upset about Afghan corruption and mismanagement, and the perception that the U.S is throwing good money after bad.

Debate over the level of U.S. civilian aid to Afghanistan comes at a time of critical political, economic and military uncertainty in the impoverished nation. Nearly all international combat troops will have left by the end of the year. The recent presidential election is mired in disputes over allegations of rampant fraud. And on the economic front, the massive infusion of international aid, which has financed most government operations, is dwindling.

The question is: How fast is too fast?

Congress cut U.S. assistance to Afghanistan to $1.12 billion for this fiscal year, down more than 50 percent from the $2.29 billion allocated for fiscal 2013.

President Barack Obama has requested $1.59 billion for upcoming fiscal 2015. The initial Senate version suggests $961 million in civilian aid to Afghanistan. The House number is not available.

But Congress has not yet approved the spending bill, and there are fears that Congress won't do it anytime soon as lawmakers, facing fall elections, put off difficult spending decisions. If that happens, USAID's Afghanistan program would operate longer under this year's appropriation — the one that was halved.

James Dobbins, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the administration agrees that civilian aid to Afghanistan needs to decline.

"We had been projecting, I think, about a 16 percent decline year over year — each year for the next five years — not a 50 percent decline," Dobbins said Wednesday at an Asia Society Policy Institute event. "We will try and persuade Congress to go back to a more gradual decline."

Since 2002, Congress has appropriated about $103 billion for reconstruction in Afghanistan — more money than the United States has ever spent to rebuild a single nation. By the end of this year, more U.S. tax dollars will have been spent on reconstructing Afghanistan than in rebuilding Europe under the Marshall Plan after World War II.

"Despite the drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces, our mission there is far from over," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said, referencing the billions of dollars still unspent and more being appropriated each year. "Afghanistan reconstruction should still be relevant to every U.S. taxpayer and policymaker."

The recent crisis in Iraq has fostered fear that if the U.S. turns it back on Afghanistan, it too will devolve into chaos. That could convince Congress not to cut Afghan aid money too sharply. At the same time, there is congressional support for cutting aid because of persistent corruption in Afghanistan.

"It's widely known that people are ripping off the United States, through our various aid and assistance programs," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., lamented at a congressional hearing earlier this year.

"I think we've got to stop pouring money into this black hole," he said.

USAID agrees that adequate oversight is needed but worries that cutting aid too quickly will reverse gains made in programs, such as improving health and education and empowering women.

Bolstered by billions in international aid, Afghanistan has charted dramatic progress since 2002. The World Bank says the gross domestic product per capita rose from $186 to $688; primary school enrollment rose from 19 percent to 72 percent; the percentage of Afghans with access to improved water supplies increased from 22 percent to 45 percent; maternal mortality nearly halved and life expectancy rose significantly.

Preventing international aid from dropping quickly was the goal of a conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo in 2012. At that meeting, donor nations committed to providing $16 billion in civilian aid through 2015. The idea was to send a message to Afghanistan that while troops might be filing out, aid would remain. That aid, however, has become contingent on the Afghan government's effort to curtail corruption and enact various pieces of legislative reform. So far, that progress has been mixed.