WASHINGTON (AP) — 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."