On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held a hearing on “Advancing U.S. Interests: Examining the President’s FY 2017 Budget Proposal for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In her opening statement, she said the following:
This hearing represents an important opportunity for both our subcommittees, allowing members to provide appropriate and necessary oversight over the president’s budget request for Afghanistan and Pakistan, each of which fall under our different subcommittee jurisdictions.
This year, the president is requesting approximately $1.2 billion for Afghanistan and about $742 million for Pakistan in the foreign aid budget. For comparison’s sake, the combined request for these countries is about 77 percent of the overall request for the South and Central Asia region and about 4 percent of the entire foreign affairs request for this year. It is critical that Congress understands exactly where this money is going, whether we are getting a good return on our investment, and assess how we can ensure that these funds are helping achieving U.S. interests in the most effective way possible.
When I led a CODEL to Afghanistan in November 2015, I was struck by the positive changes President Ghani and CEO Abdullah have made since former President Karzai stepped down. Despite their differences, every official we met with said that Ghani and Abdullah are a vast improvement over Karzai and they have proven to be partners that are willing and able to cooperate with the United States while taking steps to root out corruption and stabilize their country.
But last week’s terrorist attack in Kabul is a sobering reminder of the challenges Afghanistan continues to face from the Taliban and other terrorist groups. While Afghan security forces have had some success since taking the lead last year, the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and is responsible for most of last year’s 5,500-plus military casualties and 10,000-plus killed or wounded civilians. The Taliban is adapting to the Afghan military’s tactics, moving into new territory as it gets pushed out of others and using terrorism to inflict the kind of mass violence that we saw in Kabul. The Taliban is also adapting to our restricted rules of engagement, understanding the extremely limited situations when the U.S. actually does provide air support to the Afghan security forces, and adjusting their tactics accordingly.
When I was in Afghanistan in November, our troops did not have the authority to target ISIS, allowing it to grow in strength and numbers before the president finally authorized ISIS as a target earlier this year. The president needs to allow U.S. forces to target the Taliban as well and I urge the administration to provide the Afghan security forces with the close air support and surveillance assistance they so desperately need. It is extremely difficult to negotiate with an enemy who sees its position consistently improving and, as President Ghani said yesterday, the Taliban operates freely because Pakistan refuses to take action against it inside its borders.
Pakistan is a direct contributor to the Taliban’s success, not only allowing them to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven but providing it support inside Afghanistan’s borders. It makes little sense to continue giving Pakistan billions of dollars if it’s going to continue to work against our interests. We must leverage our aid to Pakistan so that it is a better regional partner with Afghanistan and also helps us root out terrorists within its borders. That includes stopping the sale of F-16s that Pakistan does not need and will probably not use in its supposed fight against terrorism.
We should instead be prioritizing assistance for Afghanistan, which, in addition to its security needs, continues to struggle with an enormous budget deficit, an economy almost entirely reliant on donor aid, and rampant and widespread corruption. With corruption still a significant issue, I continue to be concerned by our provision of on-budget assistance and question whether our aid is getting to the right places. Afghanistan has said it needs about $10 billion dollars donated each year until 2025 before it is self-sufficient, and I fear what will happen to Afghanistan’s economy once the donor fatigue that has already set in gets worse.
In addition, not enough attention is being paid to counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, which already accounts for 90 percent of the world’s heroin, and I am concerned that the administration’s decision to draw down resources in this area will enable a boom in poppy production if it hasn’t already. While I was in Afghanistan, our commanders on the ground told us that they do not have the authority to carry out counter-narcotics operations, and while DEA’s presence has been substantially reduced, INL’s footprint is also restricted due to the reduced DOD presence. The Afghan military does not have the resources to focus on counter-narcotics while it is concentrated on fighting the Taliban. So with all that said the question is: who is going to cover counter narcotics operations?
With the Afghan counter-narcotics chief declaring that no eradication will occur in Helmand Province this year due to the Taliban’s presence, the drug trade is poised to expand even more, fueling both the Taliban’s operations and Afghanistan’s massive addiction problem. In all of these areas, we need to be giving the Afghan government a chance to succeed, supporting it politically and providing it with the right kinds of security assistance while helping bolster its economy and redoubling our counter-narcotics efforts.
Afghanistan is an important ally in an important region of the world, and its security, stability and success are critical for U.S. interests – we must remain engaged for the long term.
Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was first elected to Congress in 1989.