Afghan rethink urged by congressional report

The decade-long US effort to build a new Afghanistan has dramatically distorted the local economy and its few successes are unlikely to survive the military withdrawal due to begin next month, according to a gloomy congressional report.

The report, the result of two years’ work by staff from the Senate’s Democratic-majority foreign relations committee, urges the Obama administration radically to rethink its approach to Afghanistan.

“Success should not be measured by outputs or the amount of money spent, but by the ability of Afghan institutions to deliver services, the Afghan private sector to generate jobs and grow the economy,” said the report, published on Wednesday.

This comes as Barack Obama, president, prepares to act on his pledge to start withdrawing some of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan from next month. Military leaders want a limited drawdown, with combat troops remaining, while the president’s Democratic base and a growing chorus of lawmakers is pushing for larger reductions.

Many Americans have grown weary of the long and inconclusive war, with the military operation costing more than $100bn a year. The US has also spent almost $19bn on foreign aid over the past decade, more than in any other country, including Iraq.

The committee’s report notes that the administration has been using aid to win “hearts and minds” – about 80 per cent of it spent in the restive south and east, and on short-term stabilisation projects.

Evidence that these projects promoted stability was “limited” and they could even be counter-productive, the report said. It also noted that foreign aid – which accounts for 97 per cent of Afghanistan’s economy – could “fuel corruption, distort labour and goods markets” and undermine Kabul’s control over resources. “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now,” it said.

The single most important thing the US could do, the report said, was to stop paying “inflated salaries” to Afghans working for foreign governments or international organisations, which were up to 10 times the market rate. This had “drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan government and created a culture of aid dependency”.

The report is likely to add pressure on the Obama administration for an accelerated drawdown, rather than the slow withdrawal being promoted by officials, including Robert Gates, the outgoing defence secretary.

But Ryan Crocker, the Obama administration’s nominee to become the new ambassador in Kabul, said the US could not afford to abandon Afghanistan and let it fall back into the hands of terrorists.

“The United States is not walking away from the region,” Mr Crocker, previously ambassador in Iraq and Pakistan, said during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Despite the death of Osama bin Laden, “much work remains to be done to ensure that al-Qaeda can never again threaten us from Afghanistan with the Taliban providing safe haven,” he said.

Speaking soon after the foreign relations’ committee report was released, Mr Crocker pledged to find ways to curb corruption, which he said risks triggering “a second insurgency” that “undermines confidence on the part of the people of their government.”

Although political bickering has hampered many nominations before the Senate, Mr Crocker is all but certain to be confirmed. His nomination was warmly welcomed on Wednesday by John McCain, the Republican senator who this week told the Financial Times that a maximum of 3,000 US troops should be withdrawn next month.

But adding weight to those arguing for a bigger drawdown, a senior Afghan security adviser suggested that the US had been focused on the wrong efforts.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta said ending Pakistani support for the insurgency was the key to stability in Afghanistan.

“There are 40,000 madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan, and even if only a small fraction of them support the terrorists, the stream of new fighters is almost endless,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel in an interview published on Wednesday. “There will only be peace in this region when this source has been dried up.”

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