The Billion-Dollar Breakup

Last weekend, the Bush administration announced it would soon propose a $1 billion aid package for Afghanistan, more than triple the amount of assistance the war-shattered country received this year. The money will fund badly needed reconstruction projects: roads, schools, women's employment programs, the hastened build-up of the Afghan National Army.

The move, seemingly out of nowhere, met with a gracious welcome from President Hamid Karzai's government.

"Reconstruction creates jobs," Karzai Chief of Staff Said Tayab Jawad said. "It creates a sense of trust and gives people hope for a more peaceful future."

The proposal signifies an abrupt turnaround for the White House, which earlier this year submitted a budget that included exactly zero dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid for the country, preferring to funnel all its spending in Afghanistan -- about $1 billion a month -- into the U.S. military's war against terrorism. The only reason Afghanistan got any reconstruction money at all this year was that Congress hurriedly tacked on a $300 million aid package just before the budget passed. (To get a sense of the kind of commitment this represents, consider that the 2003 U.S. foreign aid budget, not including military expenses for Afghanistan and Iraq, was $16 billion.)

The White House decision, then, to administer a $1-billion cash infusion to a country so egregiously neglected in the last round of budget proposals would seem to signal a shift in priorities. But a change in tactics should not be confused with a change of heart. The administration is more eager than ever to extricate itself from Afghanistan. This plan is designed to speed that process; it is a fancy candlelit dinner and a new outfit on the eve of the breakup -- after months of heavy hints that the relationship just isn't working out.

The clues lie in the nature of the projects to be funded and the origin of the plan itself. Unnamed officials cited in The Washington Post said the package was designed to fund highly visible projects that can be finished in a year, boosting the image of the U.S.-backed Karzai government in time for national elections in October 2004.

On a visit to Washington last month, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah stressed the importance of noticeable improvements to daily Afghan life to the transitional government's chances of winning the elections, originally scheduled for June 2004.

"If in June 2004 the capital is in dark because of [a lack of] electricity, will anybody believe this government that things will be different in two and a half years from then?" he asked. "No. I think this government will lose credibility; its friends will lose credibility. To the eyes of the Afghan people, it will be $4.5 billion spent and still no electricity in Kabul, in the capital." Handsome new schools and smooth black ribbons of highway where once were pothole-riddled jeep-busters are just the sorts of showcase projects to reassure Afghans that Karzai is the right horse to bet on. Other destinations for the new aid are programs to get women back into the workforce -- a crowd-pleaser here at home, where the touted improvements to Afghan women's lives are a treasured, if largely fictitious, source of satisfaction -- and the strengthening of a national police force and army, for which a small contingent of U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy insiders have been pressing with mounting urgency.

The question, of course, is how long the United States will remain involved with Afghanistan after the goal of installing Karzai in office has been met. That the $1 billion aid plan originated inside the Pentagon is a bad sign for the long-term prospects of a mutually caring and respectful relationship between Washington and Kabul. Not only does it highlight the trend of Defense Department encroachment on State Department turf, but it suggests that the ultimate goal of this proposal is to free up troop and treasure commitments for other ventures. Iraq, North Korea and Iran call.

"We noted that there's a lot we're spending in Afghanistan and there's a lot at stake strategically," said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, whose office conceived the plan. "And we asked ourselves are we investing enough, given the expense of everything that we're doing, the importance of success and the benefits, strategic and financial, of completing our mission there sooner rather than later."

What some might have hoped for from the office charged with formulating U.S. military policy, rather than a series of quickie cosmetic projects designed to get our man in office, is a military strategy to fulfill the stated aim of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which is to stabilize the country so terrorist elements cannot proliferate there. Consensus among the foreign policy establishment is that the best way to do that is to expand the 4,500-member International Security Assistance Force, currently confined to Kabul. Even with fresh assistance, the Afghan National Army will not reach its full strength of 70,000 for several years. In the interim, the experts agree, peacekeepers are needed throughout the provinces to quell banditry, rape and murder by roving bands of warlord-backed militiamen and common criminals.

But a U.S. effort to expand ISAF would require political capital. NATO assumes command of the force on Aug. 11, and NATO members, if not the alliance itself, are under U.S. pressure to send troops to Iraq, not Afghanistan. Furthermore, it would be harder to bow out of a long-term engagement in Afghanistan if other nations were more heavily invested than they are now -- and as the May bombing of a busload of German peacekeepers in Kabul proved, troop investment in Afghanistan is not without risks. Risks like that inform decisions: Two weeks ago Germany said it would be cutting its Afghanistan force by a third.

Frank Wisner, former U.S. ambassador to India and chairman of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that released a June report recommending an expanded ISAF, says he does not know why the United States has refused to push for a stronger mandate.

"That's a good question, and only my friends in Washington at the Pentagon and State can answer it," Wisner said in an interview last month. "I imagine the answer lies in the Pentagon. I am only speculating, but maybe there was a thought that an international force would get ahead of itself, that it would get into a long-term commitment that could keep the United States involved longer than the United States wanted to be."

The Pentagon plan will probably do what it is supposed to do: The new reconstruction projects will be appreciated and Karzai will be elected, putting the face of U.S. success on a nation-building project just about the time the administration asks for more international help in Iraq. Afghanistan will be no safer from the internal unrest that feeds terrorism a year from now than it is today, but it had better figure out how to cope with that problem on its own. The day is coming when the ride will be over and Afghanistan will be let out by the side of a brand-new highway in front of a brand-new school to find its own way home.

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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