As a group of Afghan men gathered around US Army Staff Sgt. Adam James, neither he nor the locals were terribly enthused about talking. James’s platoon had been tasked with surveying villagers about their needs in Dabay, a tiny collection of houses in Paktika Province.
Nearing the end of their yearlong tour, even the privates in the platoon could guess fairly accurately what the Afghans would say – irrigation equipment, building supplies, and warm-weather clothing.
As for the Afghans, after more than eight years of US soldiers passing in and out of their town, they had a pretty good idea of what would happen. One villager initially refused to speak to the soldiers, saying, “Five years ago, American soldiers came here asking about our problems. They wrote them down in their notebooks and then they never came back.”
For both Afghans and US soldiers alike, reconstruction often proves a frustrating process. After nearly a decade of reconstruction pledges from the US and international community, many Afghans have grown frustrated by the slow pace of progress. Meanwhile, the US soldiers juggling the country’s security challenges and development projects must constantly deal with expectations management.
Given the amount of money invested in the country, many locals charge that the pace of development has not matched the level of investment.
$39 billion on humanitarian aid, reconstruction
Since 2001, the US has spent more than $39 billion on humanitarian and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, not including the more than $25 billion that has come from the international community. As in Iraq, however, there have been a number of problems with limited oversight, and many international watchdog agencies speculate that billions of dollars allocated to Afghanistan’s reconstruction is probably unaccounted for.
Additionally, despite this significant investment, at most, a little more than half of Afghans have heard of or know about any reconstruction project or program in their area funded by foreign aid, according to a recent survey by The Asia Foundation.
“Unfortunately, the big ticket projects that have been funded and led by the international community have not really provided a big kind of impact on the average Afghan,” says Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Still, Mr. Gouttierre, whose center is involved in several independent development projects throughout Afghanistan, points to a number of improvements that would not have been possible without all these development projects. He says, though, that the current system is complicated by myriad donors with different objectives and accountability systems.
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.
“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.