Afghanistan war: gap grows between US efforts, Afghan expectations
Many Afghans say the pace of development has not matched the amount of investment. Since 2001, the US has spent more than $39 billion on humanitarian and development projects.
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Amid this backdrop, the US military is working to implement its own development projects. In an area like restive Paktika Province, however, they’re confronted with a layered set of problems. At Combat Outpost Zerok, for example, US soldiers responsible for helping to implement some projects are themselves living without any running water.Skip to next paragraph
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“The locals always say that 'you ask us all these questions about what we need and yet we never see anything done.' It’s pretty true for the most part,” says US Army Lt. Erik Hall, the executive officer of Able Company, 3-509 Infantry Battalion.
While Hall says his unit has been fairly successful with small projects, such as providing basic construction materials to reinforce irrigation channels, larger projects require more time than his unit are likely to spend in the country.
Tighter grip on the US wallet
The US military is also less willing to pass out money as freely as it once did. In the early days of the war, the US was eager to win hearts and minds by providing whatever Afghans asked for, without doing much research. As a result, the US would finance the construction of too many wells in an area and take the water table below sustainable levels, or build clinics in towns without doctors.
“The local populace will say, if you build us this, we’ll be able to take care of it and run it ,and 9 times out of 10, they can’t,” says US Army Capt. John Meyers, civil military operations director for the 3-509 Infantry Battalion. “They may want a clinic with X-ray machines and surgical equipment, but do they have surgeons, do they get supplies on a regular basis, do they have consistent power? If they don’t, then there’s no point in building that for them.”
In the past year, the US military has worked to become more strategic in its aid distribution, says Meyers. Now he says, if a community asks for wells, they try to research whether the water reserves can handle another well. As a result, it takes longer to get projects approved, and many Afghans interpret the delay as a failure by the US military to make good on promises.
Development work in Afghanistan provides the additional challenge of making certain that no tribe feels shortchanged compared with its neighbors. Even in instances where the US military has been investing the same amount of money, if not more, in two tribes, soldiers say that locals often complain if they’re not getting the same projects as their neighbors.
“We try hard to target each community so it doesn’t look like we’re favoring one or the other,” says Lt. Michael Bassi, Able Company’s civil military operations specialist.
Given these challenges, the US is working to push Afghans to rely more on their own government to meet their needs.
“They do not bring their issues to me because I’ve reiterated to them many times that I’m here to help the government, and to help it help you. Although I would like to help every person, I just can’t, and that’s the fact of the matter,” says US Army Capt. Bryce Kawaguchi, commander of Able Company.