Clinton Calls Years of Afghan Aid 'Heartbreaking' in Their Futility

Speaking at a conference at The Hague on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says diplomacy must be packaged with military action and civilian development to rescue Afghanistan. Video by AP
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

THE HAGUE, March 30 -- The billions of dollars spent in U.S. aid to Afghanistan over the past seven years have been largely wasted, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday.

"For those of you who have been on the ground in Afghanistan, you have seen with your own eyes that a lot of these aid programs don't work," she said. "There are so many problems with them. There are problems of design, there are problems of staffing, there are problems of implementation, there are problems of accountability. You just go down the line."

Clinton called the amount of money spent without results "heartbreaking."

Speaking to reporters as she flew here to attend a conference to promote the Obama administration's new policy for Afghanistan, Clinton said the ability of the United States to effectively administer aid programs has "very little credibility" among Afghans. Under the new American plan, she said, the United States will limit its aid efforts to areas of expertise while recruiting other countries to take on elements of a coordinated aid effort.

Clinton also acknowledged that administration officials have stopped calling the fight against al-Qaeda "the global war on terror," the preferred phraseology during the Bush era.

"The administration has stopped using the phrase, and I think that speaks for itself, obviously," she said, adding that there had been no formal policy directive to do so. "It's just not being used."

Many Democrats have contended that the "war on terror" label was too broad, potentially enlisting the United States in a war with any militant group; the president's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy lists as its central aim disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda.

The United Nations-sponsored conference will bring together on Tuesday more than 80 countries and nongovernmental organizations. It is designed to renew support for Afghanistan in advance of presidential elections planned in August but is also seen by U.S. officials as a chance to gain international backing for the administration's approach. Clinton said she planned to announce a $40 million contribution to a U.N. effort to raise more than $200 million to hold the elections.

Since 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent more than $5 billion in Afghanistan, according to figures on the agency's Web site. Clinton oversees USAID, which has boasted a number of success stories, including building hundreds of schools, distributing 60 million textbooks and vaccinating 90 percent of children against polio. But a report by Oxfam last week charged that much of the U.S. aid in Afghanistan is wasted on consulting costs, subcontractor fees and duplication.

Clinton's blunt comments on past aid programs -- which appeared to also indict the broader international effort -- will probably raise the bar for the administration's aid programs. "We are scrubbing every single civilian program," she said. "This is part of my mission as secretary of state. We are looking at every single dollar as to how it's spent and where it's going and trying to track the outcomes. We want to see real results."

Iran is sending a senior representative to the conference -- expected to be a deputy foreign minister -- but Clinton said she had no plans to meet with him or even address Iran in her prepared remarks to the conference. She said she was looking forward to hearing what Iran believed it could do to assist Afghanistan.

"From our information, they are really concerned about all of the narcotics crossing the border into their country, so this is a matter of their own internal security," Clinton said. "Border security and counternarcotics are a combined issue that have a great deal of importance to them, and I would imagine that's an area where they are willing to work with others."

The United States and Iran worked cooperatively on Afghanistan immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but that cooperation largely ended after President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.

Obama administration officials have said they hope Afghanistan could once again be an area where the two countries, antagonists for three decades, might begin to find common interests.

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