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House lawmakers, citing corruption, may block $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan

House lawmakers voiced deep doubts on Wednesday about the Obama administration’s efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan, and warned that they may block $4 billion in U.S. aid unless they are convinced it will not be stolen or wasted.

At a time of growing skepticism in Congress about the Afghanistan mission, lawmakers told U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke that they lacked confidence in the Afghan government’s promises to end corruption, and the Obama administration’s capacity to get the Afghans to do so.

“Despite efforts by our government, and reformers within the government of Afghanistan, corruption is endemic,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Lowey announced last month that she would hold up $4 billion in requested civilian aid for fiscal 2011 while her panel investigated the adequacy of spending controls. The move was unusual from a Congress that has rarely challenged administration requests for spending on the Afghanistan mission.

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The panel could restore the money in the fall. Even if the funds are excluded from the bill, civilian aid programs for Afghanistan could proceed as planned because of the ample U.S. aid already in the pipeline, said Lowey, who generally has supported the administration’s approach to the war.

Lawmakers from both parties criticized aspects of the mission, including the administration’s plans to funnel more of the U.S. money directly to the Afghan government rather than to nongovernmental organizations. The Obama administration’s two-year goal is to increase its direct aid to the Afghan government to 50% of the total, up from 20%, a move intended to build up Afghan government agencies’ capacity to provide public services.

Rep. Kay Granger (R- Texas), the ranking minority member, said U.S. officials need to ensure that the money “goes to Afghan ministries for the right reasons and to achieve real results, not simply to meet an arbitrary goal of sending a certain percentage of assistance through the government.”

Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, listed several corruption-fighting programs that have been set up with international help, including a task force to fight major crimes in Afghanistan, and an anticorruption unit. He said that fighting corruption was a top administration priority.

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“Is this enough? Of course not,” he said. “It is a start.... But it’s daunting. It’s tough.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) described a drift in public opinion about the war.

In meetings in his home state, “I am noticing a change in my constituency about the direction of American activities in Afghanistan, and it’s not good,” Rehberg said. Though Montana has supported the effort, “as I travel around, I see a problem,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D- Burbank) questioned whether the corruption may be too deep-seated to be eliminated by efforts to root it out at the higher levels of government.

He said there may be “a sort of day-to-day graft which is so widespread that a relatively small number of cases at the higher levels of Afghan government may not deal with the endemic problem.”

paul.richter@latimes.com


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