U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Being Cut

The Bush administration has announced plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and has budgeted far less in reconstruction aid over the coming year. Some critics worry that the U.S. commitment to the country is waning.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's hear next about the country just across Pakistan's long and jagged western border. In Afghanistan, NATO is expanding its presence. Because of that, the Bush administration has announced plans to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan. The administration has also budgeted far less in reconstruction aid for Afghanistan over the coming year, and that has some critics worried that the US is reducing its commitment to the country. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Unless Congress appropriates more money, the US Agency for International Development projects in Afghanistan will drop from more than a billion dollars last year to about $620 million this year. The funding affects projects to build Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure as well as programs in education and health.

James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation was the Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan. He says US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan were not given enough resources in the first years after the US invasion.

Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (RAND Corporation): Afghanistan was the least resourced of any American nation-building enterprise in 60 years. It was, in my judgment, grossly underfunded.

FLINTOFF: Dobbins adds that in the past two years the administration has tried to remedy that by doubling the amount of assistance from around $500 million a year to more than a billion, but that Afghanistan's needs were actually greater than those in Iraq, which received far more money.

Mr. DOBBINS: And Afghanistan is far poorer, and it was also far more destroyed and devastated by conflict than was Iraq. So from the standpoint of needs and absorptive capacity, Afghanistan logically should have been receiving the bulk of the assistance.

FLINTOFF: Administration officials and some aid workers have said one reason for this year's reduction is that Afghanistan lacks the capacity to absorb aid quickly; that its rough terrain and uncertain security mean that projects move slowly.

Mr. RICK BARTON (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): I don't happen to agree with that. I think that there's a huge need there. And the absorptive capacity problem is that we work in very traditional ways, and those traditional routes are not available to us.

FLINTOFF: Rick Barton is co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. Barton says the US needs to make at least a 10-year commitment to building the economy of Afghanistan's provinces and go beyond security initiatives such as setting up the Afghan army and police.

Mr. BARTON: Those have been the largest items by far, and each of them is important in its way. But if the other things are not brought along, we won't really have much of a country for this new military to protect.

FLINTOFF: USAID officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but the agency says the US commitment to Afghanistan remains strong. Administration officials say one reason that funding for Afghanistan appears to have been drastically reduced is that the amount was inflated last year by a supplemental appropriation of about $3 billion. Much of that funding did go for security, to the Afghan army, police and counternarcotics efforts. But some also helped swell last year's total for reconstruction to more than a billion dollars. It's still possible that Congress could appropriate more money for Afghanistan, but lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for increasing the commitment in the face of growing deficits, as well as disillusionment with the far more costly reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Henry Waxman is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California; Committee on Government Reform): We have an obligation to these countries to help them in their reconstruction. But we need to do it with reforms in the system that will make sure that the money's being used wisely, that there's oversight, that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth when the funds are used for reconstruction.

FLINTOFF: After nearly four years of a US and international presence in Afghanistan, all sides acknowledge that there's still an enormous amount of rebuilding to be done before the country is free from the risk of collapsing back into a failed state. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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