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Ambassador nominee says Afghanistan not hopeless

- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama's choice for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said Wednesday the United States must continue its investment in the country to prevent it from backsliding into a safe haven for terrorists.

Ambassadorial nominee Ryan Crocker repeatedly was challenged by skeptical lawmakers who questioned a costly war now in its 10th year and nation-building that a fresh congressional report found has had limited success despite nearly $19 billion over 10 years, more than the United States has spent in any other country, including Iraq.

At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the goal is "good enough governance" in Kabul, "good enough to ensure that the country doesn't degenerate into a safe haven for al Qaeda."

Mr. Crocker — a career diplomat who has served in Beirut, Islamabad and Baghdad — said the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan was an important step toward disrupting al Qaeda. But he said much work remains to be done to ensure al Qaeda never threatens the United States from Afghanistan again.

Mr. Crocker said progress in Afghanistan has been significant but is still fragile and reversible. The U.S. is expected to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next month. The Obama administration hasn't yet said how many of the 100,000 troops will leave initially.

Reflecting the congressional wariness and war fatigue, Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who is Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told Mr. Crocker, "Our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable, in my judgment."

Mr. Kerry and the panel's other Democrats released a report late Tuesday that found that despite $18.8 billion spent by the United States to help stabilize and build up Afghanistan, that nation is at risk of falling into financial crisis when foreign troops leave in 2014.

Misspent foreign aid can result in corruption, alter markets and undercut the ability of the Kabul government to control its resources, said the report, which was posted Tuesday night on the Senate committee's website. The World Bank found that a whopping 97 percent of the gross domestic product in Afghanistan is linked to spending by the international military and donor community.

"Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now," the report said.

Mr. Obama, after conferring with military leaders and senior advisers, will decide this month on how many of the 100,000 troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. The drawdown is expected to begin in July.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are spending about $320 million a month on foreign aid there, relying on the money to "win hearts and minds." Among the successes has been a sevenfold increase in the number of children attending school and gains in health care.

But the report said the United States must take a closer look at how it spends the money, relying heavily on contractors. The U.S. must do a better job of oversight, especially as it funds more aid through the Afghan government. One recommendation was to standardize Afghan salaries and work with the government on staff limitations.

The panel's Democrats also suggested that Congress implement multiyear aid programs and closer scrutiny of stabilization programs.

"Transition planning should find the right balance between avoiding a sudden drop-off in aid, which could trigger a major economic recession, and a long-term phase-out from current levels of donor spending," the report said.

 

Republicans and Democrats are pressing for a robust drawdown of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan, especially in a time of serious U.S. financial woes. The administration is seeking about $3.2 billion in foreign aid for Afghanistan in next year's budget, an amount likely to be closely reviewed.

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