A former militiaman receives USAID-funded supplies at an event for former fighters in Afghanistan’s Herat province. (Joshua Partlow — The Washington Post)

With the budget ax looming, the agency is betting that closer ties to the military will help it win backers in Congress, where USAID, like most of the U.S. government, faces potentially deep cuts.

But the push to do more to support the military and America’s national security goals has drawn some criticism from international aid groups. USAID leaders say they understand why, even if they contend it’s not the case.

“Many in the development community worry this work signals a militarization of aid,” Rajiv Shah, the USAID administrator, said in a speech on Friday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The aid agency’s relationship with the military has not always been smooth, and USAID has sometimes struggled over the past decade to put itself on a war footing.

The agency’s staff shrank by about 65 percent in the 15 years prior to the 2003. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, military commanders have complained that USAID focused too often on big development programs at the expense of quick-hit projects that would put large numbers of people to work.

In this spring, U.S. officials were forced to slow three key development programs in southern Afghanistan at a critical moment in the U.S. military’s campaign there.

The agency also has scored some victories, Shah says. Over the past two years, it has quadrupled the size of its staff in Afghanistan to about 450 people, most of whom work outside of Kabul. The aid agency also has reoriented itself so that it can push development money more quickly into areas that have been stabilized by U.S. military forces.

The number of children in Afghan schools has grown by more than 6 million over the past decade, and the number of Afghans with access to basic health clinics has increased sixfold.

With the war coming to a close in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, USAID is also touting its role in providing aid in Somalia, where a drought has killed thousands and displaced millions. The agency currently has about 450 aid workers operating in the Horn of Africa, which has become ripe territory for Islamic militants allied with al-Qaeda.

On Friday, Shah opened his West Point speech, the first ever address at the academy from a USAID administration, by relaying the story of a young American, dressed in boots an olive tunic, who recently delivered stacks of grain and crates of dates and milk to a camp of starving Somalis.

The man promised the Somalis that they were in his thoughts and prayers during these tough times.

“This young American wasn’t representing the U.S. government,” Shah said. “He was representing al-Qaeda. Written on each sack of grain was a message: ‘Charity relief for those affected by the drought. Al Qaeda campaign on behalf of the Martyr bin Laden.’ ”

The message Shah was trying to convey: USAID’s efforts to provide assistance are not just about American goodwill.

“Food and water availability in places like the Horn of Africa is a national security priority,” he said.