WASHINGTON – The House voted Tuesday for a $1.4 billion Afghanistan aid package that urges President Bush to devise a strategy for preventing the war-torn nation from sinking into violent chaos.
"It is vitally important that we not flounder over there," said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
A key piece of the aid legislation, sent to the Senate on a 390-22 vote, requires Bush to develop, within 45 days, a plan to improve Afghanistan's internal security. Lawmakers are concerned that local warlords and thugs will undermine the shaky interim government headed by Hamid Karzai.
"Afghanistan is in grave danger of relapsing into the very conditions of violence, of warlordism, that created the Taliban" and opened the door to the al-Qaida terrorist network, said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the security amendment.
Senate Democrats, and many Republicans, want to do more than ask Bush for a plan. Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently urged Bush in a letter to back an expanded international peacekeeping force to secure Afghanistan, especially outside the capital of Kabul.
"We can't cut and run if resistance increases," Biden, D-Del., said in a recent Senate floor statement. "The greater the uncertainty about American commitment to security, the greater incentive our enemies will have to challenge our resolve."
Biden said "an excellent place to start" would be to shift $130 million in Pentagon funds to expand the peacekeeping force.
The Bush administration is resisting the congressional prodding, arguing the best course is to swiftly train an Afghan national army and police force that can do the job itself. Critics say that would take as long as two years, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Afghanistan "will, as any nation that's going to develop on this earth, have to take care of its own business."
Another problem, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Senate panel Tuesday, is that no country has offered to send the troops needed for a larger peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. He said the country is unstable, but "for Afghanistan, it isn't bad."
"People get killed every once in a while, just like they do here in the United States," Rumsfeld said.
Jim Dobbins, former State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, said the administration is hopeful that "the Afghans themselves are tired of war" and that neighboring countries will continue working to provide stability.
"Peacekeepers are still an open question," said Dobbins, now with the Rand think tank.
Members of Congress, however, say without immediate security the aid package approved by the House might not be effective in rebuilding Afghanistan, improving education and establishing democratic governmental institutions.
"The battle for Afghanistan is far from over," said Rep. Edward Royce, D-Calif.
The legislation would authorize $1.45 billion over four years — the actual amounts must be approved in spending bills that come later — for humanitarian, military and economic aid and to eradicate poppy cultivation that supplies much of the world's heroin.
Much of the non-humanitarian aid would be conditioned on national and local leaders' cooperation with anti-drug efforts and a continued Afghan commitment to peace.
The Bush administration has asked for $250 million in Afghan aid for this year; the House is expected later this week to approve a supplemental spending bill raising that figure to $370 million. Many senators support an even larger amount, according to aides.
The bill is H.R. 3994.