Argument

Congressional Oversight

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill want to know why nation-building in Afghanistan is failing. Where were they for the first seven years of the war?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of senators recently claimed the political scalp of Arnold Fields, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), after over a year of pressure on him to resign. "I have repeatedly raised concerns about the performance of the SIGAR," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine in a statement by the group. "It has been clear for many months that this important mission is not being served effectively."

Fields, a retired Marine and decorated combat veteran of the first Iraq War, had been criticized for running a lazy shop — his team allegedly compared unfavorably with the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, according to one Capitol Hill staffer. He was also accused of concentrating his efforts on tasks outside his mandate, including a study of the role of women in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election.

But regardless of the merits of the case against Fields, the ouster is also political theater. Congress is eager to burnish its credentials as watchdog of the Afghanistan effort. Whatever difficulties there are in Afghanistan today are at least partly the fault of a Congress that, for the first five years, paid virtually no attention to the mission and has been playing catch-up ever since.

But Congress’s newfound interest in oversight of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan may be too little, too late. Until recently, the reconstruction strategy lacked money and oversight. This abdication of responsibility meant that the mission never had a fair chance to succeed — and also throws into doubt Congress’s ability to oversee the small wars that appear likely to define the 21st century.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress enthusiastically threw its weight not only behind the invasion of Afghanistan, but also behind the ambitious reconstruction of the war-torn country. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), then the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, introduced a Nov. 7, 2001, hearing on "The Future of Afghanistan" by outlining an argument for building a strong Afghan state: "[C]onsiderations of [U.S. national] security also require that we do not leave a vacuum in [the Taliban’s] place.… The end result must be a government that is sustained from within, not propped up from without; one that exercises effective control over the entire country, not merely a regime whose writ runs no further than Kabul."

Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the committee at the time, agreed with him. He pledged, "We are committed to supporting the people of Afghanistan in their quest to establish a broad-based government … respecting human rights, specifically respecting the rights of women and children and the practice of religious tolerance."

Congress eventually backed up its lofty rhetoric with legislative action. It unanimously passed the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act in 2002, which committed the United States to supporting "the development of democratic civil authorities and institutions in Afghanistan and the establishment of a new broad-based, multi-ethnic, gender-sensitive, and fully representative government in Afghanistan." The bill authorized five years of funding for reconstruction and democratization. 

The view that rebuilding and democratizing Afghanistan was essential to U.S. security was so widely shared that it went essentially unchallenged and its implementation went uninvestigated. Congress paid virtually no attention as the United States committed itself to one of the most ambitious and far-reaching reconstruction operations in history.

The proof is in the scant amount of time Congress devoted to oversight in Afghanistan during the crucial early years of the conflict. The House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees and the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees collectively averaged about six hearings per year related to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006, according to a LexisNexis search. Some of these hearings touched on Afghanistan only insofar as it related to terrorism or Iraq. Most of the others clustered around the Afghan elections and the constitutional convention. That means each committee of a dozen or so congressmen met roughly once per year to talk about Afghanistan for an hour or so when it was conveniently prominent in the headlines, and then moved on.

The political environment made it difficult for congressmen of either party to act otherwise. Oversight is often mistakenly equated with opposition — it constrains an administration’s freedom of action by heightening public awareness, and it can act as a drag on the executive branch by imposing greater administrative hurdles to action — and GOP congressmen were unlikely to oppose a wartime Republican president who remained fairly popular through 2005. Democrats, wary of being labeled anti-war, may have calculated that Americans would equate opposition to reconstruction with opposition to the war and so supported both. And of course, Iraq overshadowed everything. Congressmen of both parties had nothing to gain politically by spending time on the forgotten war.

This lack of oversight created real problems. For war skeptics, it meant that Congress never gave serious thought to the assumption that Afghan stability and U.S. security are inextricably linked. This piece of conventional wisdom is only now coming under fire from policymakers such as Vice President Joseph Biden and organizations such as the Afghanistan Study Group, which has argued that the United States can prevent Afghanistan from re-emerging as a terrorist safe haven through a campaign of targeted airstrikes.

But Congress’s failure should be even more galling for those who still believe that an extensive reconstruction effort is vital to U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan. Congress gave its imprimatur to the reconstruction effort, but never bothered to ask how to rebuild Afghanistan, how much it would cost, or to investigate its success or failure.  

If Congress had paid more attention, it would have recognized the huge gap between Afghanistan’s needs and the actual level of international commitment being provided. In 2002, the United Nations and World Bank estimated Afghanistan needed about $1.5 billion in reconstruction assistance per year. Congress responded with an appropriation of just $195 million to rebuild the government and economy of the world’s most failed state, according to the special inspector general. The U.N. and World Bank increased the price tag to $4 billion per year in 2004 and finally to $10 billion per year in 2008. But the international community committed only about $2.6 billion in economic aid per year through 2006, according to the Afghan Development Assistance Database, including just $1 billion each year from the United States. 

The United States pledged just $13 billion to Afghanistan — the plurality going toward programs to train and equip the new Afghan army and police forces — from 2001 to 2006. That may sound like a large number, but it works out to an annual investment of only $104 or so per Afghan. In comparison, following the war in the Balkans during Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States spent about $267 per Bosnian during the reconstruction effort. No credible observer of the effort during this period thought that Afghanistan was getting the help it needed.

Of course, George W. Bush’s administration, which determined the course of U.S. foreign policy during this period, bears primary responsibility for the United States’ neglect of Afghanistan. But Congress’s incurious attitude toward the war allowed it to play along with the Bush administration’s chronic under-funding of the mission. Despite the glaringly obvious gap between what Afghanistan needed and what it got, from 2001 to 2006, Congress viewed the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan as a success and permitted the operation to drift without scrutiny.

As violence in Afghanistan worsened and Democrats took control of Congress following the 2006 elections, oversight slowly improved. In January 2008, Congress created Field’s shop, the Office of the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction, and mandated that the Department of Defense submit quarterly reports on "Progress Toward Stability and Security in Afghanistan." These two periodic resources have become key weapons for critics (and supporters) of the war, arming them with hard data about how much the United States has spent, how many Afghan troops it has trained, the composition of U.S. provincial reconstruction teams, and other information. Last year, investigators unearthed a protection racket run by warlords to ensure the safety of supply convoys carrying food, fuel, and ammunition for U.S. troops. 

But even with these tools, Congress was still playing catch-up. SIGAR’s sister organization, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) was formed in October 2004, just a year and a half after the United States toppled the Baathist government. And Congress mandated reports on progress in Iraq starting in 2006. It was only after public skepticism about the war exploded in late 2008 that Congress summoned significant interest about what was going on in Afghanistan. By 2009, violence — a headline-grabbing but inaccurate index of failure — increased from four attacks per day in 2003 to 52 per day in 2009. Pessimism spiked in November 2009, when a Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans thought the war was going badly. A year later, less than half of Democrats said that they supported the war, and 50 percent said that they wanted U.S. forces to withdraw from the country sooner than President Obama’s planned 2014 deadline, according to Gallup.

Congress gave voice to the growing skepticism, holding a whopping 49 hearings on Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. Some of the new round of hearings focused on waste, fraud, and abuse in contracting — highly specific issues compared with earlier hearings, which tended to focus on generalities. Many congressmen expressed their skepticism with symbolic votes against funding: 114 representatives voted against a supplemental appropriations bill in 2010 that funded the president’s troop surge.

A few congressmen came out strongly and stridently against the war effort or aspects of the stabilization campaign. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in September 2009, "I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan." Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) declared that the U.S. mission "has become lost, consumed in some broader scheme of nation-building." Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) argued that the Afghan war "represents an epic failure, a national embarrassment, and a moral blight." All three were serving in Congress when the Afghan Freedom Support Act passed in 2002 — when the mission could have truly benefited from greater scrutiny.  

Congressmen are entitled to change their minds. But it is not clear whether they have good reasons to do so. They’ve decided the reconstruction strategy has failed without ever giving it the money and oversight it needed to succeed. And now they are holding indignant hearings demanding to know why Afghanistan is failing. The focus of hearings — why U.S. aid isn’t working better — presumes there is good reason to expect it to have worked well in the first place. There isn’t. The most failed state in the world would have needed vastly more help, by several orders of magnitude, at a much earlier date, to justify today’s exasperation.

For seasoned Washington watchers, Congress’s inattention to Afghanistan may not come as a surprise. That, however, does not make it any less dangerous to America’s mission in Afghanistan, and its national security more broadly. Small wars and complex counterinsurgency operations are the new norm in the 21st century. The United States is likely to be involved in many more such operations — perhaps not on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq, and hopefully not in the midst of shooting wars, but certainly similar to the disaster relief in Haiti. Congress needs to adapt to its role as watchdog of U.S. programs and budgets in complex environments like these, or be prepared for many more forgotten wars.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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