Clinton, Bush-backed coalition pushes Congress not to abandon Afghanistan

A broad bipartisan coalition has launched a campaign pressuring Congress not to abandon Afghan civilians as the U.S. military continues its ongoing drawdown from the war-torn country.

The Alliance in Support of the Afghan People (ASAP) is backed by a wide range of political activists and foreign policy voices – representing the Obama administration, the Bush White House and the Hillary Clinton camp, among others – who fear any progress from the last 12 years will be lost if Congress doesn't continue backing efforts to move Afghanistan away from its long and repressive history under strict Islamist rule.

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The group is focusing heavily on initiatives to ensure fair elections, women's rights, a free press and access to healthcare and education. But the underlying push is for the congressional funding that will help to prop up those institutions in the face of a war-weary public and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who fear the aid will be lost to a black hole of Afghan corruption and civil strife.

The issue presents a dilemma for Washington policymakers, who must weigh the risks of frittering taxpayer dollars versus the perils of cutting off aid and potentially having Afghanistan deteriorate into its previous state of virtual lawlessness – the same place that harbored Osama bin Laden as he prepared the attacks of 9/11.

ASAP was formed largely to give voice to the possibility of a third option: A system of accountable U.S. aid that will promote development in Afghanistan and prevent the country from sliding into chaos.

“There is another Afghanistan between the corrupt officials and the Taliban: a peaceful majority who want to continue their path to progress and build on the gains made since 2001,” John Podesta, former chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush, wrote last month in a letter to the New York Times.

The effort gained prominence earlier this month when Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and former first lady Laura Bush headlined an ASAP-sponsored forum in Washington examining how to improve the plight of women in Afghanistan. Clinton's high profile on the issue has acted both to keep her in the foreign-policy mix and to boost her bipartisan credentials as she weighs a presidential run in 2016.

Other prominent figures backing the diverse ASAP effort include Michèle Flournoy, former top Pentagon official under President Obama; Fred Kagan, military analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute; former-Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter who served as a top advisor in Obama's State Department; and Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist.

Caroline Wadhams, a foreign policy expert at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress who helped launch ASAP, said Wednesday that the group is not advocating any specific dollar amount for Afghan aid, but simply wants to prevent Congress from adopting a “slash and burn” approach as the Pentagon continues to pull troops from the country.

A series of troubling reports outlining the aid effort in Afghanistan will make ASAP’s job tougher. 

Unveiling such a report last month, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House panel that the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2014 risks billions of dollars in American investments in infrastructure, education, sanitation and other projects around the country.

“Afghanistan’s endemic corruption constitutes one of the most serious obstacles to the effective and efficient use of U.S. reconstruction dollars,” the report warns. “As the United States provides more of its development assistance on-budget — directly to the Afghan government, rather than through U.S.-managed contracts — theft and fraud will pose an even greater risk to U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

Such warnings have not been overlooked by some powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, who has pushed back against the Obama administration's 2013 request for a hike in civilian aid to Afghanistan.

ASAP faces other hurdles, both at home and abroad, as Congress is showing little appetite for new spending on nation building amid the fight to reduce deficits; a number of lawmakers are questioning the national security advantage of continued spending in Afghanistan; and relations between the Obama administration and Hamid Karzai have grown chilly this month as the Afghan President has shown a recent resistance to a security pact defining the future role of the U.S. military in his country.

While Obama has maintained that a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) must be finalized by Jan. 1 to prepare some troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Karzai has balked at that timeline, insisting that the U.S. first agree to relaunch negotiations with the Taliban and promise not to storm the homes of Afghan civilians as part of the peacekeeping effort.

“Whenever the Americans meet these two demands of mine, I am ready to sign the agreement,” Karzai said in an interview aired Wednesday by Radio Free Europe.

ASAP, for its part, says an agreement between the two sides will go a long way toward helping their cause.  

“We believe that a bilateral security agreement can protect American and Afghan interests, build long-term, constructive engagement, and secure the successes we’ve helped achieve, from women’s rights and media freedoms to dramatically increased political participation,” Podesta and Hadley wrote to the Times.