B. Rachel Zisblat
The Obama administration’s key effort to revive the US war effort in Afghanistan came down to a test vote on Capitol Hill, when a final version of the aid package passed the Senate. Even though this proposal has been slightly revised, it is still a big win for the Obama administration, and President Obama himself has thrown his support behind the new plan.
The reason: the plan includes $800 million of modest aid to the Afghan government and the fight against corruption, and $800 million to bolster Afghanistan’s electrical grid as well as rural roads, a money-saving move that worries the Pentagon.
But these are stopgap measures, and the aid cuts would affect other important projects. The $800 million doesn’t replace a dedicated program to support women’s rights, which Obama left in place, or the $500 million for beefing up NATO’s air defense system in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a Senate hearing that he could live with this. “We have sufficient capability to accomplish those things while continuing to prosecute the campaign in an effective way.”
The legislation also shaves off a proposed $1.5 billion grant to the government of Pakistan, cutting that to $750 million.
Carter said he worried that Pakistan could be doing the bidding of the Taliban. “We would rather not do that, and we’re not going to,” he said. But he will have to take it into account when deciding on what military aid to send Pakistan next.
Obama and congressional leaders met behind closed doors to hammer out a deal, and then met with the vice president to talk about the president’s Afghanistan strategy.
After meeting with Obama, Biden and the vice president pro tempore, the senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, the president told them that he would like to cut the Pakistan program from $750 million to $500 million. But this only worked for the $800 million to the government of Afghanistan, which the administration calls a “stopgap measure” before $450 million was slated to go to the Afghan government in the future, making up the difference in cash.
But with Congress in recess and less money to spend, it isn’t clear how the aid will be spent. There aren’t enough hands to do so, according to a Democratic congressional aide. So it’s unclear what will be the first areas to get this money; the aid package includes aid to Afghanistan that has been withheld for years, much of it tied to security issues. For instance, Congress approved $150 million in infrastructure projects in 2011, but it has held up release of that money, particularly since last September when the US government deployed an emergency aid package for Iraq.
US officials initially said that they would release the money. After the group meeting on Capitol Hill, the administration announced that it would release about $100 million to train police in Afghanistan. “We’re going to do whatever we can to support the Afghan authorities as they secure the country,” said Denis McDonough, the president’s chief of staff. The debate is ongoing.
The White House, and the top US diplomat for South Asia, John Kerry, have been advocating for the war funding. The president has publicly endorsed this approach, as have Kerry and Carter. But some critics have pointed out that the $800 million for a fraud-riddled government won’t go far. The Obama administration has also paid bribes to curb corruption in Afghanistan, with little to show for it.
Another fiscal issue complicating the White House and the congressional plans is America’s commitment under the New START treaty, which runs out in 2021. That pact bans the US and Russia from spending any more than about $1 billion per year on each country’s nuclear weapons. It’s easy to see why this bill would fall short on long-term spending, as some of the funds would go to the Afghan government over the next two years.
But Obama is not expected to resume negotiations with Russia over New START, and Congress has shown little interest in renewing it. Once the legislative session is over, Obama must decide if the billions of dollars he has committed to restarting the war will be enough.