A high-stakes bid for Afghan hearts
The US has pledged more than $300 million in development over the next year in Helmand Province. Success could sway farmers at the center of both the insurgency and the opium trade.
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But Afghans have grown cynical about foreign talk of development. Just as the Marines had to prove they could retake territory with minimal civilian casualties – which they did in an offensive in the southern province during the summer – the development community has a more difficult point to prove to ordinary Afghans: Siding with the government brings prosperity.
The American foreign assistance arm, USAID, says that within 12 months Helmand residents will see: a doubling of local hydropower, wheat seeds for more than 35,000 farmers, saplings for 1,000 hectares of orchards and vineyards, a new courthouse, new district police substations, jobs for 166,000 men fixing roads and irrigation ditches, and a new road linking the capital to the national ring road. The biggest goodie of all: an industrial park with space for agricultural factories and an airstrip.
If it sounds like a last-ditch effort, it is. Success would win over the farmers in the heartland of the insurgency and at the center of poppy cultivation, and demonstrate a formula for holding ground in Afghanistan. Failure – given the high-profile nature of this mission – could lose Afghans for good and dishearten Western publics about the prospects of the war.
"We made a lot of mistakes at this point and our credibility isn't very high," says David Garner, an aid expert who has worked for years in Afghanistan. "If you've got a strategy in your back pocket that you can deploy immediately and that project is grounded in agricultural realities ... then over a period of 12 months you could have a pretty significant impact in terms of getting people's attention. But the opportunities for recidivism here are significant."
The level of violence seen leading up to and during the Aug. 20 presidential election may sow some doubt about how safe it is to cooperate with Americans on rebuilding projects. And quick deployment will be tough in the areas recently retaken. Despite arriving in early July, it's not until late August that the Marines expect to begin expanding beyond their bases, says Rory Donohoe, director of USAID's Alternative Livelihood programs in southern Afghanistan.
"I can take a USAID worker and put him in an MRAP [armored vehicle] and go anywhere, but it's really the Afghan civilian officials that matter – their freedom of movement," says Mr. Donohoe, who is based in Helmand. The safety radius for those Afghan officials is now limited to about 1,000 feet from the bases – a distance that security forces will now start pushing outward. "We can't build a school if we don't have a Ministry of Education representative in there, and if he cannot leave the forward operating base, we are not there yet," says Donohoe.