As Supplemental Heads to Conference, Members Warn of Cautionary Tale in Afghanistan Funding

Posted October 17, 2003 at 6:14pm

With most Members of Congress focused on the nearly $20 billion President Bush has requested for reconstruction in Iraq, key Congressional Republicans and Democrats have been quietly urging the White House to refocus attention on their first stop in the fight against terrorism — Afghanistan.

Although modest sums have also been included in the mammoth $87 billion supplemental spending bill for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, Members are using the war-torn nation as an example of what not to do in Iraq.

“There has been some neglect of it,” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said of the nearly two-year U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan after toppling its repressive and terrorist-shielding Taliban government.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, agreed.

“One really does need to understand the challenges we face [in Iraq]. … We should not leave vacuums like Afghanistan,” he said during the House Appropriations panel markup of the supplemental request on Oct. 9.

Indeed, new reports of Taliban resurgence in parts of Afghanistan as well as increased violence against civilians and aid workers has many Members worried that the volatile country could again serve as the training ground for the likes of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers — who learned their destructive skills in Afghan camps with their leader Osama bin Laden.

“A failed state there could be an incubator for terrorism again … but the resources have not always followed the policy,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) warned.

Senate Armed Services member John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed, and said recent history shows the United States cannot take a half-hearted approach to Afghanistan.

“We can’t let Afghanistan become a haven for terrorists like we let it happen to Afghanistan in ’89, when [the U.S.-supported Afghan rebels] forced the Soviet Union out,” said McCain.

Following that decade-long war, Afghanistan only fell further into the hands of Islamic extremists with sympathies to terrorists who had designs on targets in the United States.

Now as they watch the situation in Afghanistan further deteriorate, House appropriators used the supplemental — in which Bush sought $800 million for Afghanistan — to boost spending there.

The Senate did not follow suit during its floor debate, but Lugar and other concerned Senators said they would support the House approach when conference committee negotiations on the supplemental begin this week.

And that appears to be where House and Senate leaders will have to decide whether to buck the White House’s funding request for Afghanistan.

So far, the United States has pumped billions of dollars into the country, but nearly half has gone to training an Afghan national army and supporting U.S. forces there. The real problem, many members say, is in finding the funds for critical infrastructure needs.

“Why on earth are we nickel-and-diming the effort to fight terrorism … in Afghanistan?” asked Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Joseph Biden (D-Del.) in a statement at a recent hearing on the issue. “If the administration isn’t willing to make good on President Bush’s promise … for Afghanistan, we run the grave risk of seeing our hard-won military gains evaporate.”

On Friday, the House approved an $86.7 billion emergency package that included $1.2 billion for Afghanistan. Led by House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.), the chamber scaled back Bush’s $20.3 billion for Iraqi reconstruction to $18.6 billion and shifted some of the savings to Afghanistan. The Senate passed its version of the supplemental later on Friday.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who offered a failed amendment to transfer another $500 million from the Iraq portion to Afghanistan on the House floor, said he believes that more money for Afghanistan will emerge from the conference committee.

“[The Afghanistan situation] is breaking through a little bit; odds are we’ll have at least this much,” he said.

Blumenauer has allies on the other side of the Capitol in lawmakers like Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who was in Afghanistan less than two weeks ago and described the situation as “chaotic.”

“Our embassy there is ringed with barbed wire and barriers,” he said. “That pretty much says it all.”

Lugar and other Foreign Relations Committee members have complained that despite Congressional funding for expanding the international security force in Afghanistan, the administration has not moved quickly enough to expand security forces and reconstruction efforts outside the city of Kabul.

“I hope there really is a new policy in the making,” said Biden.

Blumenauer thinks there may be. “This has been a good week; there’s buzz, there’s talk; it feels better,” he said.

Lewis, who was vocal in boosting funding for Afghanistan, agrees that the tide might be shifting. He said the administration has “begun to in a very serious way” rethink Afghanistan.

But many Members indicated that the administration must also take the lessons learned from Afghanistan and apply them in Iraq.

“You can’t separate the two,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). “They are connected.”