The U.S. is proposing almost $300 million in new aid programs over five years for Afghanistan in an effort to stabilize the economy and offset losses after U.S. forces withdraw.
The announcement of the aid today comes as the Obama administration debates whether to withdraw some or all U.S. troops from the country after this year. The assistance covers education, trade and agricultural initiatives meant to sustain advances and build on them, said Larry Sampler, who heads U.S. Agency for International Development programs in Afghanistan.
“Going into transition in Afghanistan there has to be economic growth, economic activity, both to offset losses when the military leaves, but also for sustainability,” Sampler said in a telephone interview.
Delivery of the promised aid ultimately will depend on sentiment in Congress, where lawmakers have expressed growing frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign an agreement letting limited U.S. forces remain after this year and his increasingly vocal denunciations of the U.S. role in his country. Congress cut the budget for development aid to Afghanistan by about half, to $1.12 billion, for the current fiscal year.
USAID intends to provide $125 million over five years to get Afghan farmers better access to technology and research to improve crop yields and access to markets. Elements of the program can range from the use of text messages to check crop prices to gaining access to better seeds or research on the best way to wrap pomegranates to ensure they get to the market in their best shape.
Opium remains Afghanistan’s most lucrative agricultural export, and U.S. officials have acknowledged that the effort to eradicate it has failed. Opium production “remains a substantial portion of overall agricultural output and will continue to fuel corruption and fund the insurgency,” the Pentagon said in a report to Congress last year.
An additional $92 million over five years will go to an education program providing technical training in fields such as carpentry, nutrition, agricultural sciences and electrical wiring.
“The notion is to identify areas where instead of applying to med school, we can draw some young people into two-year degrees so they can leave with skills needed by Central Asia and Afghanistan,” Sampler said.
A third program to improve the business environment and attract greater foreign investment is aimed at getting Afghanistan into the World Trade Organization. That will cost $77 million over four years.
“These programs are focused on what we believe are the best opportunity to foster a sustainable, economically vibrant Afghanistan going forward,” Sampler said.
The impact of a potential troop pullout “for me is more a political question than an operational one,” he said. “None of those troops levels provide us operational support. They’re important politically, they’re important to the people of Afghanistan, but for the programs I’ve just described, troop levels are irrelevant.”
Sampler said the important issue for USAID is that their staff has a “permissive environment in which to work.” If U.S. troops leave, he said USAID “will increasingly rely on Afghan troops to provide that permissive environment.”
President Barack Obama pledged to remove all U.S. combat forces -- at 34,000 as of Feb. 1 -- from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He left open the possibility of keeping a smaller force to train the Afghan military and mount counterterrorism operations.
The security pact with the U.S. that Karzai has refused so far to sign would give any remaining U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under local laws. It was unanimously approved last year by a council of tribal elders Karzai convened. Obama pulled U.S. troops from Iraq when it failed to approve a similar pact.