WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision to bring home more than half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next year is setting off intensified debate over an issue with big consequences for Afghanistan’s future: how long the U.S. and its allies should pour civilian aid into the country.
The 12-year effort to modernize and stabilize Afghanistan is by some measures the most ambitious nation-building program ever undertaken by the United States. It is also among the most scrutinized and second-guessed.
The program has given most Afghans access to health care for the first time, even if it is weighed down by corruption and waste. It has drawn violent reprisals from the Taliban but has helped educate a generation of Afghan girls. Accused of fostering a dependency culture, it has nonetheless provided the foundation for a functioning economy.
But with most U.S. and NATO troops set to leave by the end of 2014, advocates of continued aid are warning against too precipitous a cutoff of financing from the United States and its allies. They acknowledge that corruption in the Afghan government and budget-cutting pressure in Congress do not help their cause.
“Because we have so many of our own constraints economically right now, there’s a huge possibility that Congress will say we’re not going to provide $2.5 billion a year indefinitely," said Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.
The administration and other advocates of aid are trying to maintain support for an international plan, agreed to last year among the major donor countries to Afghanistan, to scale back aid gradually so that the Afghan government and other institutions have plenty of time to adapt.
“Our record of creating really significant gains in Afghanistan over the last decade is what is going to enable us to continue to convince Congress and the American people that these investments are worth continuing to make," said J.Alex Thier, who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development’s efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At stake, advocates of aid and other experts say, is Afghanistan’s ability to negotiate the next few crucial years, when the government will have to wean its economy, budget and social programs off foreign aid even as it takes over responsibility for security and fighting the Taliban.
U.S. development assistance alone exceeds the roughly $2 billion a year in tax revenues collected by the Afghan government. Compounding the economic effects of disengagement is a sharp drop off in civilian spending by the U.S. military, which is a major employer of Afghan civilians and contributes substantially to the nation’s gross domestic product.
In a recent speech, John Sopko, the inspector general who monitors the cost-effectiveness of the reconstruction effort, said U.S. officials in Afghanistan were keenly aware that the security and economic transitions were linked to each other.
“I think it’s fair to say that the success or failure of our entire investment in Afghanistan is teetering on whether these two interrelated and ambitious goals can be met," Sopko said.
By the broadest measure of accounting for the costs of the effort, the United States has spent $90 billion on aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002, a figure that includes programs run by the U.S. military and the costs of providing security for the effort, according to Sopko’s agency, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
By the narrowest measure — money funneled through USAID, the State Department agency that has taken the lead in the civilian aid program — the total is $15 billion since 2002. Obama is likely to seek an additional $2 billion to $2.5 billion for each of the next several years to meet the commitments made by the United States at an international donors conference last year in Tokyo. The donor countries pledged to provide $16 billion in civil economic assistance to Afghanistan over the next four years, with about half to come from the United States.
“The key is how to manage declining aid, mitigate the adverse impacts, and put aid and spending on a more sustainable long-term path," the World Bank said in a report last year.
On a practical level, aid programs are already facing constraints because of the military pullback. With fewer bases scattered around Afghanistan, fewer troops on the ground and reduced air transportation, the military has less capacity to provide security for development teams.
Congress will not take up the issue in earnest until later this year. But proponents of continued aid have gained support from an alliance of Democrats and Republicans eager to protect Afghan women and girls from a Taliban resurgence and to maintain the fragile stability gained by the United States’ dozen years in Afghanistan.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it is possible to make a strong case for strategic investments so that our soldiers will not have died in vain," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a member of the appropriations subcommittee that allocates money for foreign aid.
Given the vulnerability of Afghan women and girls, Landrieu said, support for continued aid from female senators on both sides of the aisle can be “a bulwark against the natural tendency to retrench."
But as the debate plays out, some aid advocates say they worry that the problems that have surrounded aid efforts during the war will taint the whole idea of civilian assistance, even though it is only a tiny slice of U.S. government spending.
“I’ve often worried that the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan — and especially Afghanistan — is that we don’t know how to do foreign aid and therefore we shouldn’t continue to provide aid at the levels we have been," said Wadhams of the Center for American Progress.