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US Lawmakers Poised to Vote on Billion Dollar Afghan Aid Bill - 2002-05-18

The House of Representatives is poised to vote on legislation to provide just over $1 billion in economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan over the next two years. Lawmakers expressed support for the bill, but expressed skepticism about how effective U.S. assistance for counter-narcotics suppression in Afghanistan can be.

Called the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act, the bill provides money for a wide range of needs, from health and refugee resettlement to reconstructing the country's agricultural sector and building a viable market economy.

It provides $1.1 billion for Afghanistan until the end of 2004, with the overall goal of reducing terrorism and contributing the country's future stability.

In addition to funding various development and reconstruction efforts, the bill calls for a civilian-controlled and centrally-governed Afghan army, and a professional police force that respects human rights.

"We have toppled a brutal, repressive, regime in Afghanistan. Now we are finding that the term 'nation-building,' which some were dismissive of during the last presidential campaign, is no longer a term of derision. It is something people understand the United States has a responsibility in which to be engaged," said Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

Even so, Congressman Blumenauer said the bill does not pay sufficient attention to the need for reconstruction of Afghan cities, or civilians who were mistakenly targeted during the U.S. war against the Taliban.

Another Democratic Congressman, Alcee Hastings, expressed concern that money for Afghanistan be monitored carefully. "Sending this amount of money to a region that is still war-torn and rife with organized crime may be a dangerous thing to do. Peacekeepers in the region for a substantial period of time are going to be a must," he said. "Accountability is absolutely essential."

The bill targets funds for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan's key opium-producing regions (Badakshan, Helmand and Kandahar). However, aid would not go to areas where, in the words of the legislation, the Afghan government does not actively, effectively and vigorously participate in narcotics suppression.

Congressman Hastings expressed skepticism that crop-substitution can work in Afghanistan. "We are going to find ourselves on the short end of yet another war on drugs, while we are trying to stop a war on terror, in an area where drugs are being grown as we prepare to send money there," he said.

But another lawmaker, Congressman Mark Sauder, said the bill will help support the efforts of the Afghan interim government. "Although chairman Karzai clearly seeks to ban production and control of the narcotics trade, he simply cannot do it without the assistance provided in this bill. We must decisively take advantage of a potentially-historic opportunity to stem the flow of heroin around the world," he said.

Under the bill, other countries and international organizations are eligible for assistance if they are taking part in military, peacekeeping or policing operations in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has not yet taken a position on the bill, which is awaiting a final vote in the House. The White House had requested only $250 million in aid for Afghanistan's reconstruction needs.