Los Angeles Times: House Panel Says It May Block $4 Billion in Adghan Aid if U.S. Cannon Stem "Endemic" Corruption

Jul 29, 2010

HOUSE PANEL SAYS IT MAY BLOCK $4 BILLION IN AFGHAN AID IF U.S. CANNOT STEM 'ENDEMIC' CORRUPTION

Reporting from Washington

House lawmakers Wednesday voiced deep doubts about the Obama administration's efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan, and warned that they may block $4 billion in U.S. aid unless they are convinced it will not be stolen or wasted.

At a time of growing skepticism in Congress about the Afghan mission, lawmakers told U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke that they lacked confidence in the U.S.-backed Afghan government's promises to end corruption, and the administration's capacity to make them do it.

"Despite efforts by our government, and reformers within the government of Afghanistan, corruption is endemic," said Rep. Nita Lowey, (D-NY), chairwoman of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

Lowey announced last month that she would hold up $4 billion in requested civilian aid for fiscal 2011 while her panel investigated the adequacy of spending controls. The move was unusual from a Congress that typically has rarely challenged administration requests for spending on the Afghan mission, and was seen as another sign of growing unease on Capitol Hill.

Still, the panel could restore the money to the appropriations bill in the fall. Even if it the money remains out of the bill, civilian aid programs for Afghanistan could go ahead as planned, because of the ample U.S. aid already in the pipeline, said Lowey, who generally has supported the administration's approach to the war.

Lawmakers from both parties voiced a variety of criticisms about the mission, including over the administration's plans to funnel more of the U.S. money directly to the Afghan government, rather than to nongovernmental organization. The administration's two-year goal is to increase its direct aid to the government from 20 percent to 50 percent of the total, a move intended to build up the capacity of the weak Afghan government agencies to provide public services.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the ranking minority member, said U.S. officials need to ensure that the money "goes to Afghan ministries for the right reasons and to achieve real results, not simply to meet an arbitrary goal of sending a certain percentage of assistance through the government."

Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, listed several corruption-fighting programs that have been set up in Afghanistan with international help, including an Afghan major crimes task force, and an anticorruption unit. He insisted that fighting corruption was a top administration priority."Is this enough? Of course not," he said. "It is a start…But it's daunting. It's tough."

Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) warned Holbrooke about a dangerous drift in public opinion about the war. In meetings in his home state, "I am noticing a change in my constituency about the direction of American activities in Afghanistan, and it's not good," Rehberg said. Though Montana has supported the effort, "as I travel around, I see a problem," he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) raised the question of whether the corruption may be too deep-seated to be eliminated by efforts to root it out at the higher levels of government. He said there may be "a sort of day-to-day graft which is so widespread that a relatively small number of cases at the higher levels of Afghan government may not deal with the endemic problem."