Just keep your hands off that war money

 In Afghanistan

Last week, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the State & Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, announced that she would cut $4 billion requested for State Department and USAID funding for Afghanistan due to concerns about corruption:

“The alleged shipment of billions in donor funds out of Afghanistan and allegations of Afghan government insiders impeding corruption investigations are outrageous,” Lowey said in a statement. “I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that U.S. taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists.”

Lowey is right to be concerned about making our nonmilitary funding in Afghanistan more effective. Because our civilian capacity has been decimated over the years, a lot of development money is being poured into  large-scale, short-sighted projects that can fuel corruption and are performed by wasteful private contractors or the US military. Whatever their good intentions, the military is not trained for development work and their involvement politicizes important development work and makes it more dangerous for civilians. Aid groups on the ground have noted that these big, short-term impact projects are often poorly carried out and are aimed more at a vague concept of “winning hearts and minds” than on building local capacity and engaging in long-term sustainable development.

This flap over the civilian funding provides an opportunity to draw more attention to the projects that are actually working and key improvements that could be made that make those investments more effective and less susceptible to corruption. A major part of this is letting local Afghans lead rather than the military or contractors. The National Solidarity Program is just one smaller-scale Afghan-led project that has been highly praised and is less vulnerable to corruption and retaliation by the Taliban.  Aid expert Andrew Wilder explained in testimony to Congress:

Another good example is the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development’s National Solidarity Programme (NSP), which our research found to be one of the few aid programs that was relatively positively perceived. While there were some criticisms and problems identified, overall respondents appreciated the extent to which they were consulted and involved in the process of identifying, prioritizing, implementing, and monitoring the projects, and that a relationship was built between communities and the NSP implementing partners. In other words, the process and not just the product seemed to play a key role in contributing to the relatively positive impressions of NSP.

Oxfam notes that the NSP has reached more than 22,000 villages in Afghanistan, building roads, dams, wells, schools and community centers.  Oxfam interviewed aid workers with on the ground experience in Afghanistan and put together an array of recommendations to improve civilian work that would make it more cost effective and more likely to improve lives in Afghanistan. There are ways all civilian work across the board in Afghanistan could be improved.

Lowey’s stand on the funding, however, ignores a glaring problem. Roll Call describes the move as “the latest sign of growing angst among House Democrats about the U.S. war efforts.” If there is so much angst about the war, why not do something about the military funding? Lowey cited concerns about the state of the US economy in her pushback on the funding. While the $4 billion in the fiscal year 2011 budget that Lowey wants to cut is no small amount of money, the 2011 Defense budget includes $138 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When passed, this will bring the total amount of spending on the war in Afghanistan to $300 billion.

Will Lowey and her colleagues on the Appropriations Committee threaten to cut that money until the administration can explain why we need 100,000 US soldiers to fight less than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan? Until they can explain what “reversing the momentum of the Taliban” means and how they will do it (just ask Jon Stewart about that)? Until they tell Congress how the plan in Kandahar won’t be as big a failure as the offensive in Marjah? Until they can appease soldiers’ concerns about their safety under limited rules of engagement while guaranteeing they won’t continue to increase the number of civilian casualties?

I could go on and on, but the point is clear. I don’t expect this kind of stand from Congress any time soon.  I’m not arguing that Congress shouldn’t exercise more oversight over the civilian funds—they absolutely should. But at a time when it’s abundantly clear that a military strategy will not bring stability to Afghanistan, a straight up cut of critical funding is shortsighted. It’s taking the easy way out to use the money as a vehicle for criticizing the war, playing on misperceptions about the efficacy of foreign assistance, while not facing any pushback from scary Republicans who will tell them they don’t support our troops.

At a time when a growing bipartisan group of national security experts and current and former military officials is pressing Congress to fully fund civilian agencies as a key step to strengthening US foreign policy, the US is spending 20 times as much money on the military in Afghanistan as on development. While our taxes pay for $1 million per year for each soldier in Afghanistan, we are spending only $93 per Afghan per year on development.  There are some members of Congress who are taking a stand against the continued funding for a failing military strategy, and a decent contingent of representatives will vote against the funding for the escalation of the war this week. However, Congress needs to do more. We need vocal champions for a smart strategy based on development and diplomacy, and members of Congress who will proactively work to make sure the budget for civilian agencies reflects that. We also need members who will complain as loudly as Lowey is about squandering billions more of our tax dollars and use their positions of power to end what is now the longest war in US history—and an unnecessary and misguided one.

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