U.S. Backs Off Rebuilding in Afghanistan and Iraq
WaPo fronts news that the United States is pulling back in its Aghanistan rebuilding efforts.
Four years into a mammoth reconstruction effort here that has been largely led, funded and secured by Americans, the United States is showing a growing willingness to cede those jobs to others. The most dramatic example will come by this summer, when the U.S. military officially hands over control of the volatile southern region — plagued by persistent attacks from Islamic militias — to an international force led by the NATO alliance. The United States will cut its troop strength by 2,500, even though it is not clear how aggressively NATO troops will pursue insurgents, who have shown no sign of relenting. At the same time, the U.S. government is increasingly allowing Western allies, or Afghans themselves, to take on the tasks of rebuilding a country that has suffered more than two decades of fighting and remains beset by poverty, drugs and insurgency.
The United States says that its shifting approach complements Afghanistan’s evolution into a self-sustaining democracy and that Washington has no plans to pull out altogether. “The Afghans have to have enough space to make their own decisions, even to stumble sometimes,” said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann. “But we shouldn’t leave them without critical support before they’re strong enough.”
As the U.S. presence becomes less visible, however, Afghans are starting to question whether the U.S. support is sufficient. Some Afghan officials express concern that the Bush administration’s priorities are simply shifting elsewhere and that the United States may abandon their country prematurely, much the way it did in the early 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
Funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which topped $1 billion for 2005 and has helped build highways, schools and clinics across the country during the last four years, will be reduced to just over $600 million in 2006, unless Congress appropriates more money.
On one of the biggest threats facing the country, the illicit drug trade, the United States has largely ceded leadership to the British government and is pinning its hopes on Afghan provincial governors to eradicate poppy fields. Although U.S. officials have warned repeatedly about the need to curb the burgeoning opium business, they have so far spent only modest amounts to help and now say Kabul must take the initiative.
Politically, too, the United States has been less willing to exert its influence. The previous ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, played a strong, high-profile role here, negotiating directly with recalcitrant regional leaders and openly advising President Hamid Karzai. Neumann, who arrived several months ago, is a quieter presence who rarely interferes in Karzai’s decisions. Earlier last month, to the surprise of many Afghans, the U.S. Embassy stood by silently during a struggle for the leadership of the new parliament, in which Karzai’s government was believed to have backed a radical Islamic scholar and ex-militia leader accused of past human rights abuses over a more moderate candidate who had run against Karzai for president.
Some foreign allies are encouraged by the signs that the United States is willing to loosen its grip and allow others a greater role in the country’s rebirth. Several Afghan officials said they welcomed the increased responsibility. “We don’t want to be a permanent burden on the international community,” said Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. “This country has been defended by us for 5,000 years. That is our duty.” Still, Wardak noted, the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. support after the decade-long Soviet occupation ended in 1989 precipitated a civil war that culminated with the Taliban movement taking power. “I hope the international community, and especially the U.S., has learned the lesson of what happened,” he said. “I hope that history will not repeat itself this time.”
This comes on the heels of yesterday’s front page report by on a similar trend in Iraq.
he Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq’s criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein. Just under 20 percent of the reconstruction package remains unallocated. When the last of the $18.4 billion is spent, U.S. officials in Baghdad have made clear, other foreign donors and the fledgling Iraqi government will have to take up what authorities say is tens of billions of dollars of work yet to be done merely to bring reliable electricity, water and other services to Iraq’s 26 million people.
“The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq,” Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview this past week, McCoy said: “This was just supposed to be a jump-start.”
Since the reconstruction effort began in 2003, midcourse changes by U.S. officials have shifted at least $2.5 billion from the rebuilding of Iraq’s decrepit electrical, education, water, sewage, sanitation and oil networks to build new security forces for Iraq and to construct a nationwide system of medium- and maximum-security prisons and detention centers that meet international standards, according to reconstruction officials and documents. Many of the changes were forced by an insurgency more fierce than the United States had expected when its troops entered Iraq.
In addition, from 14 percent to 22 percent of the cost of every nonmilitary reconstruction project goes toward security against insurgent attacks, according to reconstruction officials in Baghdad. In Washington, the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction puts the security costs of each project at 25 percent.
U.S. officials more than doubled the size of the Iraqi army, which they initially planned to build to only 40,000 troops. An item-by-item inspection of reallocated funds reveals how priorities were shifted rapidly to fund initiatives addressing the needs of a new Iraq: a 300-man Iraqi hostage-rescue force that authorities say stages operations almost every night in Baghdad; more than 600 Iraqis trained to dispose of bombs and protect against suicide bombs; four battalions of Iraqi special forces to protect the oil and electric networks; safe houses and armored cars for judges; $7.8 million worth of bulletproof vests for firefighters; and a center in the city of Kirkuk for treating victims of torture.
At the same time, the hundreds of Americans and Iraqis who have devoted themselves to the reconstruction effort point to 3,600 projects that the United States has completed or intends to finish before the $18.4 billion runs out around the end of 2006. These include work on 900 schools, construction of hospitals and nearly 160 health care centers and clinics, and repairs on or construction of nearly 800 miles of highways, city streets and village roads.
While progress in both Afghanistan and Iraq are impressive given the starting points and the presence of large guerilla sabotage campaigns, much more is needed. As Juan Cole notes,
The US gives $2 billion a year to Egypt and $3 billion a year (actually much more) to Israel. The US budget is something like $2 trillion. Isn’t rebuilding Afghanistan to the point where it doesn’t fall into chaos again and threaten the world as a result worth as much as helping Egypt and Israel remain at peace? Half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product now comes from poppy sales. Europe is being flooded with its heroin, and the danger of narco-terrorism on a Colombian scale is ever present.
Even if it makes tactical sense for there to be a non-U.S. face on these efforts, it is certainly within our budget and our interests to shell out a couple billion a year targeted rebuilding efforts in these societies.