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.
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As the new doctor walked from the helicopter his shoes sank into the mud. His eyes bulged as he scanned the scene. At the center of Khan Neshin lies a centuries old “castle,” a crumbling mud-wall fort where the police fought an Alamo standoff with the Taliban several years ago. There’s a sleepy bazaar with a few dozen shops open, a school, and a mosque. Mud compounds and crude irrigation trenches break up the flat fields. When the ditches stop, a desert of sparse sage stretches to the horizons.Skip to next paragraph
Budget entirely from foreign aid
Almost nobody has an education here, so Balouch flew to Lashkar Gah to find cabinet officials. The provincial government there assembled a slate of appointees, but Balouch assumed they would be corrupt. He chose people he personally knew who promised to stay if they came.
He also got civilian aid agencies to pay his cabinet’s living expenses on top of salaries from the provincial government.
Balouch’s budget is from international aid, not from Lashkar Gah. Coalition aid agencies have about $1 million to spend here next year, and USAID has $100 million countrywide. The school in Khan Neshin has been rehabilitated from its days as an opium depot.
The foreigners are quick to route work through the governor. “It’s about [residents] engaging in their local government,” says Capt. Chris Banweg, a civil affairs officer from Wauconda, Ill. “It’s not about the projects, it’s about the relationships [that] grow out of the projects.”
Aid groups know they are going to be giving money for years. But their goal is to coax Lashkar Gah – and Kabul – to start paying for government.
“We want that support to come for the district governor from his provincial government. And right now, he might be leaning on us quite a bit, but as he can put pressure and we can put pressure on that provincial government, then ideally that provincial government can put pressure on the national government,” says Maj. Jeremy Hoffmann, an information operations officer from Aurora, Colo.
The Taliban, when they ran things, would take a cut of the opium crop as tax. For the moment, the coalition collects nothing. But civilian aid groups plan to slowly introduce the notion of paying fees for services.
For example, shopkeepers want upgrades to the bazaar, such as a paved road and solar lights. Aid groups will ask for monthly dues in return.
But transitioning the district to provincial administration has already proved difficult. Two teachers flew to Lashkar Gah to take an exam so they could draw salaries from the government rather than the coalition. One was bumped from a return military flight and just never came back. The other’s salary went unpaid during the transition, so he stopped teaching. Lack of phones or e-mail further slows things. When the Marines could not figure out why the second teacher had not reopened the school, 10 set off on a four-hour patrol – only to be told by his son that he had left in the morning, for school.
Banweg shows no frustration over the expedition: “Americans want to go-go-go with deadlines. These guys are not on the same program. I just think you need to know that coming in, and set your expectations accordingly.”
But while the Marines are expecting this project to take several years, Balouch thinks a stable government here will be a fact quite soon. “From my perspective, it will take about a month.”
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.