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Afghanistan: Mission Uncertain

by Frank Oliveri and Emily Cadei, CQ StaffCQ Weekly

CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
Oct. 18, 2010 – Page 2382

When President Obama was mulling last year whether to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Republicans were among the loudest and most reliable voices calling for a stronger commitment to the longest war in American history. The GOP provided decisive votes for a supplemental spending measure that fulfilled Obama’s request for $33 billion to fund the troop surge, along with money for Afghan reconstruction. In the final House tally, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the “yes” column.

Now, with Republicans poised to bolster their ranks in Congress after the midterm elections, Obama probably will be looking even more to the GOP for support on his strategy in Afghanistan. The question is whether those newly fortified — and newly configured — congressional Republicans will be there in force to support him as before. Some influential members of the party are suggesting that they won’t.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham warns that an “unholy alliance between the extreme left and right” is increasing pressure on those in the middle who generally support the war to reassess their positions, and threatens to undermine the fight in Afghanistan. “Republicans are hearing frustration about the war,” Graham, a stalwart supporter of the war effort, said in an interview. “People are war-weary. Republicans were ready to walk the plank for Bush with Iraq. There are a lot of Republicans who won’t walk the plank for Obama” if polling shows support for the war dipping to 35 percent.

Democrats, for their part, are sandwiched between their inclination to support their president and their need to placate a Democratic base that wants to end the war immediately. The GOP, looking to capitalize on voter disenchantment and leverage the more domestically focused tea party movement, is playing to fears about rising debt and deficits. The 2011 policy missive from House Republicans, “A Pledge to America,” reiterates promises of spending cuts and does not once mention Afghanistan. Many tea party candidates have expressed skepticism about foreign aid, or avoided talking about the war altogether.

“We’re within days, literally, of a major shift in power in Washington, and you would never know that this nation is involved in two wars,” Graham told a friendly audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Sept. 20.

Lawmakers are still united in backing the U.S. military and the men and women serving in Afghanistan. But when it comes to specifics about the president’s counterinsurgency strategy, support on Capitol Hill is beginning to fray. The most public — and partisan — debate has been over Obama’s July 2011 deadline for beginning a drawdown of U.S. troops. Beneath the surface, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly critical of the civilian side of the mission, aimed at building a stable Afghan government. Some are angry about reports of Afghan government corruption and U.S. civilian agencies not being up to the task. Others complain that the U.S. military has used a controversial emergency funding mechanism with little oversight to fill gaps in reconstruction efforts.

The upshot of these doubts, some lawmakers and outside analysts fear, is a collective ambivalence on Capitol Hill about the Afghan mission that threatens to undermine Obama’s strategy, the Afghan government and perhaps the entire war effort. Lawmakers are slapping conditions on reconstruction funding, working to cut funding or threatening to block it altogether. Some are outright scornful about the ability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government to hold the country together.

Nine years after U.S. special operations forces first helicoptered into northern Afghanistan, a majority of voters tell pollsters they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the war, frustrated by the lack of progress. Sixty percent of Americans now say the war is a “lost cause,” according to a Bloomberg News poll released last week. That pessimism comes despite the fact that the full complement of forces from Obama’s surge has effectively been in place only since last month.

“There is ambivalence and uncertainty about the long-term future of Afghanistan,” said Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a moderate member of his caucus, about the country’s government. “Most of my Democratic colleagues are realistic about the challenges there. If we think that country is going to turn around, I think we are kidding ourselves. I’m not sure we can do anything to make a change there over the long term.”

Of course, there are a number of people, including Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, continuing to trumpet the wisdom of the war. Many are counseling patience to give the president and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, until a planned December review of the counterinsurgency strategy to see if it is working. But as U.S. officials are keenly aware, they are still operating within a highly compressed time frame, facing a Congress and public impatient for results.

“There are a lot of reasons in the Congress for people to start talking about bailing out,” Graham said. “There is nothing more noble than to protect the American taxpayer. But there is a fine line between that and mining a scenario of hopelessness to justify pulling the plug.”

Deadlines and Doubts

More than 365 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year. And as U.S. forces push their counterinsurgency campaign through the autumn and into winter, that toll is likely to mount.

With the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan now hovering around 100,000, Congress feels the weight of the president’s looming deadline for beginning a withdrawal. Many of those in the Democratic Party who opposed the initial surge are now seeking to hold Obama to his commitment to begin drawing down combat troops next July.

Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the president’s strategy only after receiving assurances that U.S. forces would step up training of Afghan security forces and push them out to the front of military operations. Now, he is campaigning for the president to hew to that deadline, going so far as to chide Petraeus on Oct. 1 for referring to July 2011 as a date when reductions are “scheduled” to begin. Levin said he worried that the statement undercut the firmness of the commander in chief’s deadline.

“Standing by that July 2011 date is the key to that progress, the crucial incentive for the Afghans to approach their task with urgency,” Levin told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Oct. 1. “If the date wobbles, so does the sense of urgency.”

Levin added that results were “mixed” when assessing progress in Afghanistan. Gains have been made in securing areas previously held by the Taliban and killing or capturing insurgents, “but the overall security situation is still troubling, and efforts to clear some areas have met greater resistance than expected.”

On the other side, Arizona’s John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called a withdrawal date “ridiculous,” the product of an “inexperienced president.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, complimented the president for changing his position on Afghanistan and launching his new strategy, but he, too, is critical of the deadline. “If the president continues to get weaker and weaker and does not take strong steps, it could undermine the effort in Afghanistan,” he said. “The Democrats are in a tough position. Their president got into this war and is now a supporter of it.”

When it comes to civilian operations, the doubts are bipartisan. Democrats, as well as Republicans, are worried about the full range of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, questioning whether enough capable Afghan security forces can be trained in the coming months to allow U.S. forces to begin leaving in large numbers or whether the reconstruction efforts have any chance at winning Afghan hearts and minds.

In the last few months, Congress has released several damning investigative reports and summoned a series of inspectors general and administration officials up to the Hill to reiterate their commitment to investigating waste, fraud and abuse in U.S. contracting and stamping it out on the ground. In fact, the amount of attention Congress paid to corruption in Afghanistan over the summer prompted Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to drop an intended committee investigation of his own because it was superfluous.

A Culture of Corruption

For many lawmakers, the questions start with America’s chief partner: the Afghan government.

Nita M. Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said one of her top concerns about the war is that the Afghan government has given “no indication at all” that it “is serious about combating corruption.” Senate leaders have been just as blunt when discussing Karzai’s role. “I and others have been very critical of his leadership, or sometimes what can only be described as lack of leadership,” Democrat Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said at a July hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Concern on the Hill intensified this summer after several cases of graft became front-page news. First, there were reports that more than $3 billion in cash had been flown out of Kabul in the past three years, leading to worries that U.S. aid money is being fraudulently diverted. Then in August, Karzai announced he was investigating the country’s Major Crimes Task Force after the U.S.-trained anti-corruption unit arrested a senior national security official in the Karzai government. Karzai also intervened to release the official in question.

In September, the country’s largest bank, Kabul Bank, came close to collapsing after two of its executives were forced to step down amid allegations of corruption. Karzai’s brother is a major shareholder in the bank.

On Capitol Hill, Lowey led the scrutiny this summer, announcing that she was withholding $3.9 billion in funding for non-humanitarian Afghan aid in the fiscal year 2011 budget her committee is currently considering.

“If we are appropriating millions, and if you look at the total, billions of dollars, we have an absolute responsibility to provide oversight and to know where that money is going,” Lowey said.

Some Republicans are particularly critical of the administration’s efforts to funnel money through the Afghan government as part of an effort to bolster Kabul’s credibility. “While I certainly recognize the need to build a capacity at the Afghan government, the ongoing allegations of corruption and illicit activity do not give me confidence that now is the time to subject U.S. funds to unnecessary risk,” Texas Republican Kay Granger, the ranking member on Lowey’s panel, said at a hearing in July.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, wants to condition civilian aid “on a secretary of State certification that the government of Afghanistan is taking credible steps to combat corruption, including arresting and prosecuting individuals alleged to be involved in corrupt practices,” according to a committee report accompanying the State-Foreign Operations bill.

Some observers worry that this scrutiny is counterproductive, leading the U.S. government to put a disproportionate emphasis on corruption over the many other challenges in Afghanistan.

“Let me be perfectly blunt. At this point in time, the congressional efforts are worse than doing more harm than good,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman has argued that attempts to target corrupt individuals in the country “do little more than prosecute a few token scapegoats.”

He added, “All of this is simply an exercise not only in futility, but you end up alienating the power structure you’re depending on” — a power structure filled with people “who we have taken nine years to empower and for whom we have no substitutes.”

The Obama administration appears to have reluctantly come around to this viewpoint. For a while this summer, the White House, prompted by congressional pique and intense media coverage, stepped up the public pressure on Karzai to combat corruption within his inner circle. But a defiant Karzai has largely stonewalled investigations, and now the administration has backed off, looking instead at efforts to combat low-level corruption that affects Afghans’ daily lives.

Some on the Hill have also begun acknowledging in private that while the congressional concerns with corruption are legitimate, focusing on corruption from the bottom up, rather than haranguing Karzai and his allies, could be more productive.

Cordesman argues that even then, U.S. officials are missing the point. “You fight corruption in a country like Afghanistan by controlling the money, allocating it effectively and ensuring that it meets the needs of the people and the new strategy,” Cordesman said. “If you can’t control the money within the State Department and the Department of Defense with proper auditing,” he said, “you can’t stop this.”

Aid Under the Knife

Congress’ biggest targets for cuts have been programs run by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, even though those amount to only about 6 percent of total war spending. When the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up the fiscal 2011 State-Foreign Operations spending bill July 29, it recommended $2.6 billion in assistance to Afghanistan, well below the $4 billion requested by the administration.

A key reason for this is persistent doubts among lawmakers about the ability of these bureaucracies to effectively manage the ever-larger aid programs they are being pressured to run. In fiscal 2003, the budget for State Department and USAID programs in Afghanistan was $700 million. By fiscal 2010, it rose to $4.9 billion.

In a Senate floor speech last month, Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont blasted USAID for wasting money in Afghanistan building “costly new roads that are already deteriorating, poorly built irrigation canals that have collapsed from landslides, hydroelectric projects that don’t produce electricity.”

“The increasing tendency in Afghanistan to measure progress by the rate at which money is spent is unwise,” Leahy said. “We have urged USAID to go slower, to focus on smaller, manageable, sustainable projects that are chosen with input from local communities.”

After the midterm elections, the pressure on these civilian-run programs is likely to increase. Granger, who could end up chairing the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee if the GOP takes the House, said that Republicans won’t exempt programs in Afghanistan as they consider how to fulfill their promises to cut spending.

Asked where any additional cuts in Afghanistan would come from, she said, without hesitation, “on the civilian side.”

That’s likely to be a Republican tendency across the board, given the party’s traditional emphasis on military might rather than “soft power.” Granger says that while she supports the overall mission in Afghanistan, she worries that the State Department might not be equipped for its increased role in the conflict.

The ramp-up of State’s responsibilities in Afghanistan “has been happening so fast,” she said, that it has only added to those questions. “That’s where you’re seeing the hesitation.”

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who visited Afghanistan earlier this month, admitted that it would be difficult to cut civilian aid programs at this point. But he is worried about a lack of overall direction. “There is a much more concrete visible evidence of a military plan than there is any civilian plan on the U.S. side,” he said in an interview after his trip. “It continues to be somewhat of a moving target.”

In the past few years, Congress has tried to highlight problems with U.S. contracting practices and oversight mechanisms for the money it sends to Afghanistan. Lowey’s Appropriations subcommittee and several others have held hearings or issued reports detailing disturbing gaps in the way the U.S. government is monitoring its spending.

The scrutiny has prompted increased attention and new oversight measures. “I am really impressed with the people at State and Treasury in the procedures they’ve set up; in fact, their efforts to work with some very good people in the Karzai government have been successful,” Lowey said.

Levin acknowledged that USAID has become more responsive to the needs of commanders in the field. Asked to characterize the agency’s performance in Afghanistan, Levin said “better than before.”

Beyond the management questions, State and USAID are also hampered by the dicey security conditions they are expected to operate in. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill report worried that the violence level has limited the ability of “USAID and other U.S. government civilians and implementing contractors and NGOs” to “carry out and oversee programs” — a real problem in the parts of Afghanistan where coalition forces have been unable to advance past the “clear” or “hold” phases of the strategy.

With battle lines shifting almost daily in some areas, local contractors have been suffering heavy casualties since the launch of the new offensive. The Professional Services Council, the national trade association of the U.S. government’s professional and technical services industry, reported that between January and June this year, 232 civilian contractors died supporting the war effort, compared with 195 U.S. military deaths during the same time in Afghanistan.

Michelle Schimpp, the deputy director of USAID’s Pakistan and Afghanistan office, told a Washington audience last week that it is very expensive to run the sort of stabilization programs her agency and others are conducting now. “We can get a much bigger bang for our buck in Afghanistan if we’re working in a more peaceful environment,” she said, something she hopes will be the case as the security situation improves.

Paul O’Brien, vice president of policy and advocacy at Oxfam America, says traditional development is possible even in some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions, if it is implemented properly. But too often, he says, Congress is simply demanding results on timetables that are unrealistically short. Many lawmakers are always “asking what results are you going to give me in the next two years to justify these expenditures,” he said.

That sort of pressure results in a tendency to shovel money out the door, leading to more waste, fraud and abuse, and engendering even more lawmaker distrust — a downward spiral of budgetary dysfunction.

“If you have the right long-term development goal for Afghanistan, you can take important steps” in two years toward “that longer journey,” said O’Brien, who spent five years as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan. “I actually think the new AfPak strategy Obama launched last year is a 10-year vision.” His fear, however, “is that political leadership in Washington, in both the administration and in Congress, will run out of patience” to implement it.

Mission Creep

With lawmakers split over the role of civilian operations in the overall war strategy, an increasing amount of reconstruction aid has been directed through the Defense Department and its Commander’s Emergency Response Program.

Originally intended as walking-around money for military units in the field that need to win over skeptical locals, the program has mushroomed in scope. “CERP is often the only tool to address pressing requirements in areas where security is challenged,” Petraeus, a key backer of the program, told Congress at his June confirmation hearing.

In fiscal 2004, the entire CERP budget in Afghanistan was $40 million. By fiscal 2010, that figured jumped to $1 billion, or 22 percent of the overall non-security Afghan reconstruction funding appropriated by Congress.

This huge increase has prompted several lawmakers who oversee the Pentagon to question why the military is undertaking more and more ambitious development projects, and whether that is the most efficient way to do things. Congress was deeply critical of the Pentagon’s reliance on CERP in Iraq, and the defense oversight panels took steps to restrict its use and create better oversight mechanisms. Similar concerns are emerging in Afghanistan, particularly over a project to electrify the southern city of Kandahar, the newest front in the president’s counterinsurgency fight.

The military plans to spend $225 million in CERP funds to lease or purchase generators and a year’s supply of fuel for them, and to improve infrastructure. But all four congressional defense panels have expressed alarm about the project, saying this kind of undertaking should have been a USAID task.

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, a Democrat who supports the president’s overall strategy, argued that CERP was not designed to take the place of international construction funding. Congress also didn’t authorize it to “cover inadequacies in the interagency process,” Skelton wrote in a July 14 letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

In an effort to address the problem, Skelton and Republican Geoff Davis of Kentucky introduced legislation late last month that would create a new system with personnel incentives to improve interagency coordination across the government. The system would include any federal agency with a significant national security role, from the Defense Department and all 16 intelligence agencies to the departments of State, Energy and Commerce.

Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee included language in its fiscal 2011 Defense spending bill, in direct response to the Kandahar project, that would make “substantial adjustments” to the program. The committee would limit CERP projects to no more than $20 million. “The committee believes it is necessary to alter current authorities because this program has been used and is being considered as a means to pay for large-scale reconstruction projects and other Department of Defense efforts that are outside the scope of the purpose of CERP,” according to the report accompanying the spending bill.

Despite all these concerns, the electrification project is going forward, according to David S. Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

“First of all, you have to understand that we are fighting a war in Afghanistan, and CERP is intended to enable the war fighter there,” Sedney said in a written response to questions. “So it’s less a matter of types of projects and more the effect you are trying to create. Also DoD and State/AID priorities overlap but are motivated by different timelines.”

USAID did, in fact, have electrification plans for Kandahar, but they would have taken years to implement, in part because of security issues. Now, the aid agency is helping the military move forward with its plans.

“USAID will traditionally go in with a development agenda that is aimed at the long-term progress of the country,” Sedney said. “We at the Department of Defense and our troops on the ground are engaged in a fight that includes very immediate operations and a broader overall campaign.”
Petraeus’ Pivotal Role

With the impatience concerning Afghanistan increasingly palpable on both sides of the aisle, funding for the entire effort is likely to continue getting squeezed. Whether driven by doubts about the overall strategy, the enormous federal budget deficit or general war-weariness, lawmakers may increasingly be looking to spend federal funds in other areas.

But there is one strong voice in particular who commands the near-universal respect of lawmakers and could end up proving to be the most influential advocate for the war effort: Petraeus.

Chambliss cited Petraeus’ positive assessment as part of the reason he was “somewhat encouraged” by his recent trip to Afghanistan.

“I think if you are a congressman and have doubts and haven’t formed a strong opinion, then Petraeus could play a strong role,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute. “It’s not his first rodeo with this sort of thing.”

President George W. Bush selected Petraeus to lead and become the face for the Iraq surge in 2007 at a time when the president had lost credibility on Capitol Hill.

And Krepinevich notes that just as in 2007, there will be many new lawmakers coming to the Hill in the coming months who are still forming opinions on matters such as Afghanistan. Petraeus could help sway many of those freshmen.

“If the fall elections turn out the way they look now,” Krepinevich said, “Petraeus could be an important voice for dealing with GOP skepticism in the same way he dealt with Democratic skepticism during the first surge.”

FOR FURTHER READING: Fiscal 2011 defense authorization bills (HR 5136, S 3454), CQ Weekly, p. 2096; fiscal 2011 State-Foreign Operations appropriations bill (S 3676), p. 2093; fiscal 2011 Defense appropriations bill (S 3800), p. 2090; fiscal 2010 supplemental (HR 4899), p. 1870; foreign aid overhaul, p. 1728; Petraeus confirmed, p. 1635; corruption probe, p. 1629; Petraeus’ mission, p. 1550; Afghan war strategy, 2009 CQ Weekly, p. 2288; Pakistan aid law (PL 111-73), p. 2245. The national security coordination bill is HR 6249.

Source: CQ Weekly
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