U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill today told military commanders that she believes in the ability of the U.S. military to build infrastructure in Afghanistan-but that the Afghan government cannot sustain those projects.
McCaskill used a Senate hearing to question military leaders on her plan to strip funding for large-scale infrastructure projects in Afghanistan and redirect those resources to road and bridge projects in the United States. McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, heard input from the Commander of U.S. Central Command on her proposed amendment to the transportation legislation currently being debated in the Senate.
"Right now, we've got hundreds of millions of dollars we're putting into road and bridge projects in Afghanistan," McCaskill said. "Which, by the way as an aside, I will say we desperately need in this country-and they're not going to get blown up while we build them here, and we're not going to have to pay off the bad guys to create the security in order to build them."
McCaskill cited the lack of a revenue source in the Afghan government to maintain the roads and bridges the U.S. is building, or even a single public authority to manage such infrastructure, asking the commanders: "Why aren't we at least requiring that the Afghan government do that first... before we put hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money into these projects? "
During today's hearing General James Mattis, Commander of U.S. Central Command agreed with McCaskill that projects the Afghan government cannot sustain should not be funded.
"We are consistent with your view right now," said General Mattis, noting that he shares McCaskill's concerns, and pointing to ways the military is attempting to focus its efforts on projects that can be sustained by the Afghan government. "We owe you a solution."
"I don't want anyone to misinterpret my willingness to pull some of this money out and put it in the highway trust fund in this country, as not supporting what our military is trying to do there," McCaskill added. "We can do this stuff. Afghanistan can't. Let me give you all credit as leaders of an amazing organization. You tell the people under you that we want to do something, and you know what-they're going to do it. We can build these roads, we can build this power grid, we can do all this, and it's a can-do attitude that is so part of our culture... but this is not going to end up well on these infrastructure projects... the Afghanistan government is not going to have a good handle on this."
McCaskill's measure would limit U.S. Defense Department spending on unsustainable infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, and would redirect those savings to road and bridge projects in the U.S., where there is currently a $2 trillion backlog in road, bridge, and infrastructure needs.
The Defense Department currently uses two pots of money to pay for infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, the Commanders' Emergency Response Program (CERP) and the recently-created Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF). Originally designed to provide commanders on the ground with funding for small-scale humanitarian and repair projects to build good will in local populations, CERP spending ballooned into multi-million dollar contracts for highways, power projects, and more. Although Congress last year placed modest restrictions on CERP spending ($20 million per project), the new AIF is being used for projects mostly ranging between $40 million and $150 million each. Since 2004, more than $7 billion has been spent on CERP and AIF projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A 2011 report by the Counterinsurgency Advisory Team for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan found that there was "no persuasive evidence" that CERP had "fostered improved interdependent relationships between the host government and the population-arguably the key indicator of counterinsurgency success." The report also cited the risk that CERP funding could be wasted, contribute to corruption, or be siphoned off for insurgents.