Foreign aid keeps America safe

James Kunder Contributor
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President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that U.S. forces will begin a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan was welcomed by an increasingly impatient Congress and public. The president’s speech followed on the heels of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that urged the administration to rethink its assistance program in Afghanistan and cast doubt on the survivability of U.S. development projects in the aftermath of a major troop drawdown. Both of these events highlight the importance to U.S. national security of having a strong foreign assistance capacity to address underlying conditions that breed extremism in places like Afghanistan.

At this critical inflection point, Congress must get serious about heeding the words of departing Secretary Robert Gates and responding to the military’s long-deferred request for an adequate civilian partner by rebuilding the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Investments in our “civilian surge” capacity today will reap significant returns for U.S. national interests down the road — generating taxpayer savings, economic growth and greater national security.

Today, USAID finds itself in the Congressional crosshairs. Amounting to less than 1% of the total federal budget, non-military foreign aid supports literacy, good health, job creation, human freedom, women’s rights and the other building blocks of healthy societies. Despite a growing consensus that investing in prevention to head off crises is more cost-effective than sending in American troops to contain chaos, Capitol Hill remains afflicted by foreign aid “politics as usual.” With all the serious long-term fiscal challenges faced by our nation, it is this miniscule portion of the budget that Congress has chosen to cut most deeply.

We’ve been here before. In the 1990s, when no one foresaw the global threat posed by extremists operating out of failed and fragile states, Congress cut USAID to the bone, forcing the agency to purge its cadre of technical specialists. This short-sighted course became evident in the wake of the 2003 Iraq intervention. Having downsized scores of democracy experts, agronomists, engineers and public health professionals from USAID, civilians with little international experience were sent to Baghdad to “advise” the post-Saddam Iraqi government, with disastrous results. Both the Bush and Obama administrations tried to correct course by launching initiatives to rebuild technical capacity at the State Department and USAID. Now, budget pressures might force this rebuilding effort to grind to a halt.

If it does, our nation’s flank will be dangerously exposed. Even now, our men and women in uniform feel inadequately supported as they attempt to stabilize Afghanistan village by village. And for good reason: there are a thousand Defense Department personnel for every one American USAID employee around the world. Our fighting forces — from four-star generals in the Pentagon down to the grunts on the frontlines — have been requesting a competent civilian reconstruction partner for over a decade. Secretary Gates and uniformed commanders routinely issue warnings that inadequate civilian capacity means more American soldiers deployed and, inevitably, more dead and wounded. Year after year, Congress turns a blind eye to their warnings.

In deference to the longstanding requests from our military leaders, USAID must be empowered to respond to crisis situations and, more importantly, to strengthen underdeveloped and fragile states to prevent them from becoming terrorist safe havens. Lawmakers who recognize the importance of this work must show some backbone and provide USAID with the tools it needs to accomplish its mission, including adequate staffing, a working capital fund, more authority over its policies and budget, and full implementation of the “USAID Forward” reforms launched by Administrator Rajiv Shah. These reforms are remaking the agency into one of the most accountable, transparent and efficient government departments.

Ignoring the long-term national security implications of deep cuts to foreign aid would be both bad foreign policy and, considering the huge costs of peacekeeping ventures, unsound fiscal policy. As Congress debates foreign aid budgets during a time of fiscal austerity, lawmakers must consider the long-term costs of failing to invest in conflict prevention, costs payable in larger burdens on future taxpayers and the blood of our soldiers.

Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have already been sacrificed to shore up a stable Afghan government. Investments in civilian capacity today will ensure that our considerable investment is sustained even when there are no longer “boots on the ground.” If the current “cut foreign aid” frenzy continues on Capitol Hill, we will once again fall into the trap of funding the kinetic element of U.S. foreign policy without its diplomatic and development complements.

Washington’s debate over the pace and scope of the drawdown in Afghanistan overlooks the roots of instability that empower terrorists throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Our nation must continue to make strides in alleviating the poverty, ignorance and humiliation that al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to exploit in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only then can we truly begin to envision — and celebrate — a terror-free tomorrow.

James Kunder is a Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and a Principal of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network(MFAN).