Congress, the Taliban and money

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America’s plans to transition out of Afghanistan aren’t limited to a drawing down of U.S. military forces by 2014. The Karzai government and the Obama administration are joined in continuing aid to Kabul, but with an eye to reducing it slowly over the next two decades. At present, 75% of the Afghan government’s budget comes from foreign assistance, and the plan is for that to shrink to 10% by 2030. America’s presence will still be fairly robust, however. Military and civilian advisers, special forces elements, and – crucially – substantial economic aid will remain after the last regular combat soldier leaves the country.

This is where America’s plans could go off course: after the majority of Americans have left, the domestic political will to sustain aid at its current levels may wither. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Republican and Democratic members of Congress resist financing the Afghan state after our fighting men have come home. Simple fatigue over Afghanistan will strain even the most open-minded senator, and it would be the rare congressman who defends this policy while pushing for cuts to Pell Grants and school lunches.

But the resistance to this aid could pale in comparison to an additional possibility: an Afghan unity government with the Taliban. America’s policy is to facilitate a reconciliation between the Karzai government and members of the Taliban in order to preserve stability in the wake of American combat troops’ departure. In such a scenario, elected officials could face angry constituents demanding to know why they’re giving billions to a newly formed government populated with men who gave safe haven to al Qaeda in the lead-up to September 11th. 

What’s more, the Taliban would likely insist upon control of ministries with real power. The moment that a Taliban-directed Ministry of Education shuts down a girls’ school, or when the Ministry of Health refuses to support routine medical treatment of Afghan women, the immediate impulse from Capitol Hill will be to turn off the money spigot. Republicans would flatly refuse to finance incipient Islamism, and Democrats won’t give one cent to a government that suppresses women. Bipartisanship, ironically, would still be possible in Washington.

To avoid this pitfall, the next administration must be willing to confront the following questions:

One: Will any ministries be off limits to the Taliban? If so, which ones? Of the ministries that the Taliban might govern, will Washington set any policy restrictions on them?

Two: A Taliban-influenced Afghanistan may not be limited to simply Kabul. Countrywide stability may necessitate areas with a greater degree of Taliban control – the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar would be likely candidates. Is the United States prepared to adjust its policy from a national to a regionalist one to allow for varying conditions in Afghanistan, rather than one size fits all?

Three: Following the above, the status of women’s rights in a Taliban-influenced Afghanistan will likely be sharply varied from place to place as well. What will the American government be willing to tolerate?

Four: Will crossing of any red lines set by the United States be grounds for altering the strategic partnership that our two countries enjoy? Simply put, what unacceptable acts will provoke a reduction of aid?

It’s unclear if the Taliban would negotiate over any of the above concerns, either in advance of their possible assumption of power, or in their execution of it. But to allow them access to American funds without conditions would be unacceptable to the American public and its representatives. It’s a certainty that whoever occupies the White House come January of next year will have this very much in mind.


Grant is a consultant for the State and Defense Departments in support of the civilian surge in Afghanistan, and worked on Afghanistan’s Emergency Loya Jirga, Constitutional Loya Jirga, 2009 presidential elections, and the currency reform program of the Afghan Central Bank.

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