06/30/2010 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Wrong Time to Block Aid to Afghanistan

On Monday, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced she would not support foreign aid for Afghanistan until she was assured that the Afghan government had put an end to corruption.

"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," said Lowey, who heads the House State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Lowey was responding to recent reports that more than $1 billion a year are flowing out of Afghanistan to elite Afghans outside the country, and that Afghan authorities have derailed corruption investigations of politically powerful Afghans.

Lowey's statement is an understandable expression of frustration. But cutting off foreign aid now is absolutely the wrong approach for the United States to take in Afghanistan.

After several visits to Afghanistan in the last few years, Human Rights First issued recommendations to the Obama administration last year specifically recommending that the United States help train Afghan investigators on evidence collection and documentation and help Afghan prosecutors provide fair prosecutions. Current plans do just that, in addition to working with Afghan officials on improving their own detention facilities and their judiciary.

Lowey's frustration is understandable, not only because of the Washington Post's recent news stories, but also because of this report prepared for the State Department last year that reviewed a broad range of Afghan institutions and concluded that corruption is rampant and growing. Not surprisingly, thirty years of war has undermined the development of reliable and legitimate institutions, and of a judicial system able to keep corruption in check. But to keep Afghanistan from returning to Taliban rule or simply descending into chaos, the United States has an obligation to help the Afghan government develop and enforce laws that reduce corruption and improve government transparency. Given the recent reports that Afghanistan has some $3 trillion worth of natural resources it's eager to exploit, transparency will be critical to make sure the proceeds of those riches don't just get shipped out of Afghanistan like the billion dollars a year flying out of there now.

Although our NATO allies should and will be helping in this effort, the necessary "nation-building" isn't going to happen unless the United States commits to funding carefully-targeted programs designed to improve governance and reduce corruption. Continued funding can be made contingent on the acceptance and participation of Afghan leaders and institutions with this anti-corruption agenda.

Lowey is right that US aid to Afghanistan should be spent wisely, and not indirectly fund warlords to provide security or corrupt officials to spread as graft. But the State Department and the military's Joint Task Force in charge of detention facilities in Afghanistan are just beginning their work to improve local government enough to allow the U.S. military to transition out of there. Cutting off the funding that will allow that to happen would not only undermine the development of legitimate government institutions in Afghanistan, but would make the United States' goal of eventually leaving the country that much more elusive.

Update: On Wednesday, the House foreign aid subcommittee made good on Lowey's threat, and voted to block all aid to Afghanistan pending corruption probes. So what are they going to do if they find that there's corruption in Afghanistan? Block all $53 billion of civilian assistance requested?

Of course there's corruption in Afghanistan, as any recent U.S. State Department report on the country will tell you. And of course the U.S. shouldn't just dump money on corrupt officials or local warlords and hope for the best. But aid carefully targeted toward improving government transparency, eliminating corruption and ensuring human rights, if provided with the proper oversight, can go a long way towards addressing the problem. Cutting all aid and keeping the U.S. role in Afghanistan a purely military one, on the other hand, will doom the U.S. operation in Afghanistan fast -- and our long-term national security interests.