WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new U.S. Congress will examine cutting civilian assistance to Afghanistan as budget-minded lawmakers seek to curb costs without undercutting military operations at a key moment in a long, unpopular war.
But reducing funds for a broad U.S. reconstruction program, which has cost taxpayers $56 billion since 2002, could pose a new challenge to President Barack Obama as he rushes to demonstrate progress against the Taliban and other militants before he starts bringing home troops home in July.
Republicans, who plan to slash spending across the budget when they take control of the House this week, are unlikely to withhold funding for the nine-year-old war, which now costs over $110 billion a year.
But “you’ll see a Republican party focused on funding the military effort while trying to cut back on civilian assistance,” said one Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A senior Republican aide said many lawmakers in the new Congress would be reluctant to fund State Department or aid programs, especially those in conflict zones, in part because they believed State had poorly managed its activities in Iraq.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican who will chair the new House Foreign Affairs Committee, has said she will seek to cut “fat” across State Department and foreign aid spending.
The Democratic aide warned such cuts would impair Washington’s ability to buy some stability in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan with programs to build roads, train government officials and more during a pivotal period.
But Democrats will also be taking a harder look at reconstruction efforts as lawmakers heed the lessons of November polls, which reflected voter worries about the struggling economy, jobs and burgeoning U.S. debt.
Both parties are concerned about the effectiveness of aid efforts that have been marred by reports of corruption even as Washington in 2010 rolled out its “civilian surge” that tripled the number of diplomats and aid workers.
A special auditor for Afghan reconstruction said last month waste and fraud may have cost taxpayers “well into the millions, if not billions, of dollars” since the United States began such efforts following the Taliban ouster in 2001.
“We have a $4 billion budget for development when a country this size might get $250 million under the (U.S. Agency for International Development) formula,” said another Democratic congressional staffer who works on Afghanistan.
“How can you justify this?”
For fiscal 2011, Obama has requested around $16 billion to build Afghan security forces, improve a weak government and fund development, roughly the same amount set aside for 2010.
Intensified civilian efforts are a cornerstone of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, where officials seek to deter locals from supporting the Taliban by providing basic services and tackling poverty, just as vital as military operations.
“This is the absolute worst time that you would want to not have the second part of this one-two punch: the military and security, and then the civilian,” an administration official said. Military leaders have voiced support for such programs.
“We hope that message has resonance on the Hill.”
The war barely registered in Congress in 2010 as lawmakers worried about a sluggish economy. But that could change if the U.S. economic recovery picks up, said Larry Sabato, an expert on politics at the University of Virginia.
“Politics and policy abhors a vacuum, so if the economy moves down the agenda, several other things will move up.”
As lawmakers look toward the July 2011 date to start withdrawing some of almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, House and Senate hearings starting in February will examine the training of Afghan forces, al Qaeda and other issues.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is likely to be called to testify. Republicans may also lead investigations into widespread corruption.
But another Democratic aide said the hearings were unlikely to challenge Obama’s war strategy, at least not before July.
“There’s a lot of talk about how people are unhappy, but Republicans are generally supportive of a strong war policy,” said Ronald Neumann, a veteran who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.
“While you can get more noise and more shouting, it doesn’t matter — if there are not the votes in Congress to practically impede president’s flexibility in pursuing the war,” he said.
Liberals like Democrat Jim McGovern, who wants Obama to draw up an exit plan from Afghanistan, and others in a modest group of war opponents are unlikely to go silent.
“It is stunning to me that there is so much indifference in Congress when it comes to this issue. It’s hard to fathom given the resources we are devoting to this effort and given the fact we have been there for so long,” the congressman said.
Tea Party libertarians and conservatives who rode a wave of discontent into office last year are a wild card.
Tea party members “will certainly have some sticker shock when they see the cost of the war,” the Republican staff member said. But the Tea Party impact may be muted if leaders like new Republican House Speaker John Boehner can lasso their demands on spending and shrinking government.
Editing by Ross Colvin and Todd Eastham