U.S. aid workers find few trained Afghan partners

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN -- Alongside the thousands of additional U.S. troops, civilian aid workers are surging into Afghanistan to help refurbish schools, open rural health clinics, build irrigation systems, vaccinate livestock and provide fertilizer to farmers.

But like their military counterparts, the civilian technicians are finding the lack of trained Afghan partners their most difficult challenge. The problem is particularly acute in the remote rural areas, where the Afghan government's presence is virtually nonexistent.

"We're trying to create a centralized government where there's no history of it," said Lindy Cameron, the British head of the multinational provincial reconstruction team in Helmand. "The biggest challenge is the capacity of the Afghan government."

The point was illustrated during a recent day trip to Helmand by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was in Afghanistan to see how USDA expertise and technical assistance could help farmers boost production in the country's leading agricultural province.

Vilsack learned how U.S. aid and agricultural officials had vaccinated more than a million animals, provided seed and fertilizer to 10,000 farmers and distributed thousands of tons of feed for livestock.

But when he traveled to Nawa, bringing along Helmand's governor and the agriculture minister from Kabul, he also came face to face with the Afghan government's limitations. Only two Agriculture Ministry officials were working here, and neither lived in the district. They had no office, no equipment, no cellphone -- not even a bicycle.

The many obstacles

"The government of Afghanistan is not in a position to deliver services at the local level, especially at the district level," said Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the agriculture minister. "There, we don't have a presence still -- or an effective presence."

In Helmand, as in much of the south, part of the reason is the lack of security. With the continuing Taliban attacks, provincial officials prefer to stay in the capital, Lashkar Gah, and they rarely venture to the outlying districts. And finding central government officials willing to relocate to violent areas is virtually impossible.

As one aid worker put it, "No one wants to move to Helmand and get blown up."

But Rahimi said the situation is much the same all over the country, even in northern areas, such as Mazar-e Sharif, which has been relatively peaceful since the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.

"Even if they go to the villages, they don't even have a cellphone to call back to the capital," Rahimi said. "That is the same for the Ministry of Education . . . the Ministry of Health . . . the Ministry of Rural Development."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company