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Furious US lawmaker blocks Afghan aid

A senior US lawmaker on Monday angrily blocked billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, vowing not to give "one more dime" until Afghan President Hamid Karzai acts against corruption.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2010 10:58 IST

A senior US lawmaker on Monday angrily blocked billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, vowing not to give "one more dime" until Afghan President Hamid Karzai acts against corruption.

Representative Nita Lowey, who sits on the powerful committee in charge of the budget, said she would hold hearings into allegations that top Afghan officials flew suitcases full of cash from US aid to foreign safe havens.

"I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that US taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists," she said.

An aide to Lowey said that President Barack Obama's administration requested $3.9 billion in aid for Afghanistan in the 2011 fiscal year, which starts in October.

Lowey, a member of Obama's Democratic Party from New York, said she would refuse to consider any assistance for Afghanistan other than "life-saving humanitarian aid" when her subcommittee meets on the budget on Wednesday.

"Too many Americans are suffering in this economy for us to put their hard-earned tax dollars into the hands of criminals overseas," Lowey said in a statement.

"We will not commit billions more in taxpayer money for Afghanistan until there are assurances that such funds will be used for their intended purposes and that the government of Afghanistan is willing and able to root out corruption within its ranks," she said.

Lowey heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. Her decision would not affect military appropriations, which are handled by a separate subcommittee.

Lowey was responding to a report in The Wall Street Journal that US investigators suspect that Afghan officials stuffed suitcases full of cash siphoned from Western aid projects and flew them out of Kabul airport.

The report said more than three billion dollars has been legally declared to leave Kabul International Airport over the past three years, a figure so large for such a poor country that it triggered concerns.

Separately, The Washington Post ran a front-page story Monday saying that top officials in Karzai's government have often blocked corruption investigations.

Transparency International, a watchdog, has ranked Afghanistan as the world's most corrupt nation -- worse even than Somalia which has no effective government.

After taking office last year, the Obama administration pressed Karzai on allegations of corruption and vote-rigging. But it has become more discreet with its concerns after the Afghan leader lashed out at the United States.

Karzai in May visited Washington and told concerned lawmakers that Afghanistan was fighting against corruption but that "you don't see the results here in America" as the effort would take years.

The aid cutoff comes as US public support dwindles for the nearly eight-year war in Afghanistan. Obama last week sacked the Afghan war commander, General Stanley McChrystal, after an article showed his disdain for civilian leaders.

A Newsweek poll taken after McChrystal's dismissal found that half of Americans approved of Obama's decision but that a majority now disapproved of the president's handling of the war.

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan who heads the Armed Services Committee, said on Monday that public support would hinge on the operation planned later this year to take Kandahar, the bastion of the Taliban.

Aid has been a key component of Obama's strategy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the administration believing that civilian efforts are crucial to securing peace in areas after Taliban fighters are routed.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said he expected a "pretty vigorous" on Afghanistan.

"Not only is it not helpful but it's not warranted to invest money if we are not convinced that it will be spent in a way that will be positive and not simply enrich those who may or may not be in power at any given time," Hoyer said.

First Published: Jun 29, 2010 10:57 IST