s Pakistan and Afghanistan office, told a Washington audience last week that it is very expensive to run the sort of stabilization programs her agency and others are conducting now. “We can get a much bigger bang for our buck in Afghanistan if we’re working in a more peaceful environment,” she said, something she hopes will be the case as the security situation improves.

Paul O’Brien, vice president of policy and advocacy at Oxfam America, says traditional development is possible even in some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions, if it is implemented properly. But too often, he says, Congress is simply demanding results on timetables that are unrealistically short. Many lawmakers are always “asking what results are you going to give me in the next two years to justify these expenditures,” he said.

That sort of pressure results in a tendency to shovel money out the door, leading to more waste, fraud and abuse, and engendering even more lawmaker distrust — a downward spiral of budgetary dysfunction.

“If you have the right long-term development goal for Afghanistan, you can take important steps” in two years toward “that longer journey,” said O’Brien, who spent five years as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan. “I actually think the new AfPak strategy Obama launched last year is a 10-year vision.” His fear, however, “is that political leadership in Washington, in both the administration and in Congress, will run out of patience” to implement it.


With lawmakers split over the role of civilian operations in the overall war strategy, an increasing amount of reconstruction aid has been directed through the Defense Department and its Commander’s Emergency Response Program.

Originally intended as walking-around money for military units in the field that need to win over skeptical locals, the program has mushroomed in scope. “CERP is often the only tool to address pressing requirements in areas where security is challenged,” Petraeus, a key backer of the program, told Congress at his June confirmation hearing.

In fiscal 2004, the entire CERP budget in Afghanistan was $40 million. By fiscal 2010, that figured jumped to $1 billion, or 22 percent of the overall non-security Afghan reconstruction funding appropriated by Congress.

This huge increase has prompted several lawmakers who oversee the Pentagon to question why the military is undertaking more and more ambitious development projects, and whether that is the most efficient way to do things. Congress was deeply critical of the Pentagon’s reliance on CERP in Iraq, and the defense oversight panels took steps to restrict its use and create better oversight mechanisms. Similar concerns are emerging in Afghanistan, particularly over a project to electrify the southern city of Kandahar, the newest front in the president’s counterinsurgency fight.

The military plans to spend $225 million in CERP funds to lease or purchase generators and a year’s supply of fuel for them, and to improve infrastructure. But all four congressional defense panels have expressed alarm about the project, saying this kind of undertaking should have been a USAID task.

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, a Democrat who supports the president’s overall strategy, argued that CERP was not designed to take the place of international construction funding. Congress also didn’t authorize it to “cover inadequacies in the interagency process,” Skelton wrote in a July 14 letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

In an effort to address the problem, Skelton and Republican Geoff Davis of Kentucky introduced legislation late last month that would create a new system with personnel incentives to improve interagency coordination across the government. The system would include any federal agency with a significant national security role, from the Defense Department and all 16 intelligence agencies to the departments of State, Energy and Commerce.
Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee included language in its fiscal 2011 Defense spending bill, in direct response to the Kandahar project, that would make “substantial adjustments” to the program. The committee would limit CERP projects to no more than $20 million. “The committee believes it is necessary to alter current authorities because this program has been used and is being considered as a means to pay for large-scale reconstruction projects and other Department of Defense efforts that are outside the scope of the purpose of CERP,” according to the report accompanying the spending bill.

Despite all these concerns, the electrification project is going forward, according to David S. Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

“First of all, you have to understand that we are fighting a war in Afghanistan, and CERP is intended to enable the war fighter there,” Sedney said in a written response to questions. “So it’s less a matter of types of projects and more the effect you are trying to create. Also DoD and State/AID priorities overlap but are motivated by different timelines.”

USAID did, in fact, have electrification plans for Kandahar, but they would have taken years to implement, in part because of security issues. Now, the aid agency is helping the military move forward with its plans.

“USAID will traditionally go in with a development agenda that is aimed at the long-term progress of the country,” Sedney said. “We at the Department of Defense and our troops on the ground are engaged in a fight that includes very immediate operations and a broader overall campaign.”


With the impatience concerning Afghanistan increasingly palpable on both sides of the aisle, funding for the entire effort is likely to continue getting squeezed. Whether driven by doubts about the overall strategy, the enormous federal budget deficit or general war-weariness, lawmakers may increasingly be looking to spend federal funds in other areas.

But there is one strong voice in particular who commands the near-universal respect of lawmakers and could end up proving to be the most influential advocate for the war effort: Petraeus.

Chambliss cited Petraeus’ positive assessment as part of the reason he was “somewhat encouraged” by his recent trip to Afghanistan.
“I think if you are a congressman and have doubts and haven’t formed a strong opinion, then Petraeus could play a strong role,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute. “It’s not his first rodeo with this sort of thing.”

President George W. Bush selected Petraeus to lead and become the face for the Iraq surge in 2007 at a time when the president had lost credibility on Capitol Hill.

And Krepinevich notes that just as in 2007, there will be many new lawmakers coming to the Hill in the coming months who are still forming opinions on matters such as Afghanistan. Petraeus could help sway many of those freshmen.

“If the fall elections turn out the way they look now,” Krepinevich said, “Petraeus could be an important voice for dealing with GOP skepticism in the same way he dealt with Democratic skepticism during the first surge.”