WASHINGTON -- Top Democratic lawmakers are gearing up for a fight to drastically scale back America's foreign aid to Afghanistan when Congress returns in the fall, following a series of reports that have raised concerns that billions of dollars of assistance may not be working -- and might even be making the situation worse.
It's a mission that key senators like John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have been on for some time, as they worked to encourage the Pentagon and State Department to reign in unwieldy projects that have cost the U.S. some $20 billion over the past 10 years -- closer to $100 billion if military reconstruction costs are included.
The Obama administration has largely stayed on course: after two years of congressionally budgeted assistance, around $2 billion per year, the administration requested an increase -- to $2.5 billion -- for fiscal year 2013.
On Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, told The Huffington Post in a statement that he would not only work to block that hike, but resist any effort to maintain Afghanistan assistance at its current level, which seems likely given the current federal budget impasse.
"Many civilian assistance programs in Afghanistan have been naively conceived, exorbitantly expensive and far beyond the Afghans’ capacity to sustain," Leahy said. "Too often it has been the Pentagon driving the program, which resulted in a lot of money spent for things that made no sense from a development perspective."
Leahy added, "Congress now is poised to enact a six-month continuing resolution, which by definition puts the budget on autopilot. But it would be untenable to continue assistance for Afghanistan at FY12 levels."
Budget constraints and a general war weariness have long conspired to make a reduction in war spending likely this year.
But the fact that many of the lawmakers are now pointing the finger at development spending in particular is significant because it suggests that a certain taboo about challenging military commanders and top State Department officials over even the softer side of the war strategy has eroded.
The effort has been buoyed by a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that documented how large scale projects financed under a DOD-run Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund were unlikely to produce any measurable benefits until long after the American military's primary mission ends in 2014.
These delays, and the fact that many of the projects were deemed likely to fail after U.S. funding dried up, was creating what the inspector general called an "expectations gap" among local populations that could undermine the counterinsurgency mission normally used to justify the expense.
In a letter responding to the inspector general's report, David S. Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the region that includes Afghanistan, accused the agency of prematurely evaluating a project in its infancy. He also argued that even false hopes created by unsustainable projects could have a positive impact on the counterinsurgency (COIN) effort, even if short-lived.
"Clearly, if dashed hopes can produce adverse effects, then that very hope produces positive COIN effects in advance of project implementation," Sedney wrote.
But for many analysts and lawmakers, the inspector general's report only reaffirmed what has been gelling into a consensus among specialists that the development assistance poured into Afghanistan at a spectacular rate since 2002 -- some $20 billion by the U.S. alone and closer to $90 billion if Pentagon reconstruction programs are included -- has been fundamentally counterproductive.
A report from a British aid conference in 2010 found a "surprisingly weak evidence base" for oft-repeated claims that development aid creates stability or security.
"Aid seems to be losing rather than winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan," the report said. "At a time when more aid money is being spent in Afghanistan than ever before, popular perceptions of aid are overwhelming negative."
And last June, the majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a report that broadcast many of the same concerns as the SIGAR report, including warnings that many projects in the country were too slow, too expensive and creating unrealistic expectations among the population.
The report also noted often-repeated concerns that spending so much money in an under-equipped nation like Afghanistan has only exacerbated corruption, one of the leading complaints that the population has about their government.
"The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated," the report said.
Michele Schimpp, the deputy director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees much of the aid spending, told HuffPost in a statement that it's not fair to characterize all projects in the country as wasteful.
"Afghanistan has made tremendous economic and development progress over the past decade with the support of USAID and the U.S. Government overall," Schimpp said. "In the power sector alone, USAID has helped Afghanistan to triple the number of people with access to reliable electricity, and worked with the Afghan National Utility to quadruple their revenues so that they can sustain and improve the supply of electricity. We see similar progress across many of the other sectors."
She added that "the ability of Afghans to cement those gains" -- sustainability, in the catchphrase of the day -- has been an increasingly central focus of the agency.
But some experts say it may be too late. Earlier this year, Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, argued that the way money was spent in Afghanistan had already created such an untenable situation -- and so much corruption -- that the coming decrease in aid was likely to bring about civil disarray.
"If the international community had enforced close controls over aid distribution during the past decade -- meaning spending less money more wisely -- the Afghan state might have developed more effective revenue mechanism," Fishman wrote. "That debate is academic today.... In the medium- to long-run, fiscal unsustainability and aid dependence is a recipe for state failure and civil war in Afghanistan."
"It's a pretty systemic problem," Fishman told HuffPost. "Even though I'm quite pessimistic on the future of Afghanistan, I do think that just picking up and just dropping all assistance to the government is not the way to go. But even though there is a possibility that if you had structured aid differently things might have turned out different, they might not have."