Bamiyan pays the Afghan peace penalty

The province's residents blame their region's relative serenity for their lack of aid money and large development projects.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The situation in Bamiyan is simple enough for Mohammed Arif Arifie to distill it into two sentences spoken between sips of tea.

First, Bamiyan is so safe that the New Zealand troops posted here have not fired a shot in four years. Second, there is not a foot of paved road anywhere in a province the size of Connecticut.

The two points are connected, says Mr. Arifie, who sits beside the pitted, earthen market road here in a restaurant made of old United Nations emergency food sacks stitched together. Money follows the fighting, with millions being spent in the restive south while other, calmer parts of the country go ignored, he says. "We are punished for our peace."

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Available data is often conflicting and incomplete, but it does suggest that a disproportionate share of aid money has gone to the south. Yet experts see signs of a shift as countries realize that their development dollars can achieve more in places of relative peace.

"I can sense an increasing hunger for this," says Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat now working to preserve art and architecture in Afghanistan. "The high ideological days of 2002 are ebbing away, and now officials are listening to grass-roots operations that say, 'We can't work in [the south].' "

The shift is both practical and ideological. In addition to the mounting frustration at having newly built schools and facilities destroyed in the south, there is also a dwindling number of aid workers willing to go there as security deteriorates.

The result could benefit areas like Bamiyan, where the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will spend $17 million this year – one-third more than it spent in the previous four years combined.

Much to the delight of the shopkeepers in town, the outlay will bring the first feet of pavement to the province – nearly two miles, actually – beginning with the market road that runs through the center of Bamiyan City.

"Compared to other parts of Afghanistan in terms of security, we are very good," says Ramazan, a bearded, one-named shopkeeper who leans back in his plastic chair as shoppers bustle by his store. "Compared with the other parts of Afghanistan in terms of development, we have zero."

Such a perception is understandable in a place with no paved roads and only sporadic electricity, which comes from a local diesel-powered generator that shuts down every afternoon at 4 p.m. The reality, however, appears to be more nuanced.

USAID figures suggest that the south has been favored. Some 35 percent of the $1.3 billion it has spent on regional development since 2002 has been spent in the five southernmost provinces, where the insurgency is most active. These five provinces account for 11 percent of the national population.

By contrast, USAID has spent 15 percent of its regional budget on the nine northernmost provinces, which are relatively peaceful. Yet they account for 29 percent of the population. The south is the only region of the country where USAID has spent disproportionately more by population.

Yet in other respects, the unrest in the south has prevented development projects from going forward. One of the Afghan government's key regional-development schemes, the National Solidarity Project (NSP), has been suspended because of safety concerns in about 30 of the country's 396 districts, mostly in the south.

"In the areas where there is security and access, it is easier for the aid workers to go," says Susanne Holste, who monitors the program for the World Bank. "In the south, the start-up time is much longer."

That has benefited the north, she says, and particularly Bamiyan. NSP spending in Bamiyan has been $29.80 per person, placing it fourth among Afghanistan's 34 provinces. On Bamiyan's market street, however, these smaller-scale projects are not the highways and power stations dearly wanted by Ramazan and others.

The result is a perception – both in the north and south – that no one is benefiting from billions of dollars of international aid. Yet in Bamiyan, at least, there are signs that these complaints are beginning to bear fruit.

In a graphic example of democracy in action, Gov. Habiba Sorabi has taken these market-street complaints to the media and anyone who would listen during the past year. Her appeals have brought a surge in international commitments to the province from New Zealand, Japan, and the US. "Other provinces get more money and still there is not stability," she says, noting that Bamiyan has eliminated poppy cultivation virtually on its own.

She has bemoaned the fact NATO has assigned secure provinces Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) from small countries like New Zealand. Less-secure provinces have PRTs from America and Britain, who have far more money to spend.

For instance, the entire 2006 budget for the Lithuanian PRT in relatively peaceful Ghor was less than $400,000. The British PRT in Helmand, at the center of Taliban resistance, is building a single city park for $700,000.

There might be some truth in the claims, says Col. Roger McIlwaine, commander of Kiwi Base, which sits on an arid plateau above the green potato fields of Bamiyan. In general, though, more spending does not necessarily mean more development.

"When you look at the dollars," he says, "you have to bear in mind that security operations cost a lot of money."

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