Rebuilding Afghanistan: Will government take hold in this post-Taliban town?
District governor Massoud Balouch visited to Khan Neshin in southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan, which is building a new government with help from US Marines and with foreign aid. Getting good leaders in the area has proved difficult.
Khan Neshin, Afghanistan
The next morning, Mr. Balouch entered the bazaar with his education minister and, like the Pied Piper, gathered up idling children and walked with them to the school. One toddler, wearing a dirt-covered pink parka and muddy green boots, complained of a tummy ache, and he dispatched the new doctor to see her.
Government had arrived to this post-Taliban town in southern Helmand Province, but would it stay? Two doctors came earlier, and fled within 24 hours. A group of police failed a drug test, revolted, and were deported by US Marines. One teacher remained on an extended holiday while the rest stayed home. Balouch fired the mosque’s new mullah after the man stabbed his own brother.
Returning stable government to regions cleared of the Taliban – the linchpin of the US exit strategy in Afghanistan – relies on finding and keeping good leaders. The struggle to bring more officials to work with Balouch reveals how rare he is. And the quiet international aid backing him highlights how far Afghan government is from self-sufficiency.
“If there were more people like me, then Afghanistan will build government itself faster,” says Balouch. “Until they find good district governors, or provincial governors, or the right president for Afghanistan, the problem will never be solved because a lot of money comes to Afghanistan from all over the world, but it disappears here.”
Hard to get leaders to come to underdeveloped south
Balouch was trained as a pharmacist before he inherited wealth and the leadership of the majority Baloch ethnic group in southern Helmand. “Basically, I don’t need money,” he says. “The only thing I want to do is help people.”
Wearing a black suit jacket over a finely embroidered salwar chemise, he seems equally at ease chatting in the bazaar and running efficient meetings with the Marines.
Though he has ancestral roots in Khan Neshin, a backwater of illiterate farmers near the Pakistani border, Balouch was educated in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. His late father was an ethnic chief, while his uncle is the deputy director of Afghanistan’s intelligence service.
After taking over Khan Neshin in July, the Marines tapped Balouch to provide intelligence, while Afghan leaders – knowing his family ties – pushed him to be governor. Locals mostly appear pleased with him, though there are concerns that he’s often gone to Lashkar Gah. Some, like opium farmer Asmat Ullah, have gone to him to get work, with no success. “Sometimes the government frustrates me so much I can’t hold it in,” he says.
But getting leaders to come to Khan Neshin isn’t simple. “The majority of people who have the skills we need are from the north, and they don’t want to come south to Helmand,” says Gideon Brelser, liaison officer to the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand. “Doctors, school teachers – it becomes very difficult to find people of that quality.”
The US strategy of ‘clear, hold, build’ in Afghanistan requires competent government to move in after the Taliban are pushed out. The ongoing saga of Khan Neshin shows the height of that challenge.