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.

Sebastian Abbot/AP
In Charge: Massoud Balouch, governor of the Rig district, in southern Afghanistan, leads local children to school in Khan Neshin. 'Until they find good district governors,' he says, 'the problem will never be solved.'
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

District governor Massoud Balouch stepped off a US military helicopter in December with gifts in tow for Khan Neshin: A new doctor, mayor, education minister, and registration official.

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.”

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.

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.

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