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U.S. aid workers find few trained Afghan partners

Illiteracy is a huge obstacle. Aid workers in Lashkar Gah described how a senior provincial-level Agriculture Ministry position has remained vacant for months because no one could pass the required civil service exam.

Other aid officials said the centralization of the Afghan government presents problems as well, with all appointments made by Kabul.

There are also logistical challenges. Ministers and provincial governors largely rely on U.S. aircraft to ferry them all over the rural areas. Rahimi and Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal traveled to Nawa with Vilsack aboard a Marine tilt-rotor Osprey.

Aid workers with experience both here and in Iraq said Afghanistan is more complex. In Iraq, they said, there was an educated population and the remnants of a centralized state. In Afghanistan, they are starting from scratch, trying to build a civil service corps at the local level where none existed before.

Afghans want more say

Rahimi and other Afghans blame the problem on the international community, which, they say, has spent billions of dollars in reconstruction aid here since 2001 but funneled most of the money to foreign and nongovernmental aid agencies as well as Western companies -- with little going to build up the capacity of the Afghan government.

The international community has invested about $60 billion in Afghanistan since 2002, including $40 billion from the United States, according to the Office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

"They never developed the government of Afghanistan with their billions of dollars," Rahimi said. "For eight years, almost all the money went to the foreign companies -- the contractors -- with their high security costs."

Some U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, did not dispute the assertion. But they said that course was necessary because the Afghan ministries lacked the capacity to deal with such a massive infusion of funds.

Nawa, a small, dusty outpost, has been largely secured by U.S. Marines. The Marines say they are treading a difficult line, wanting to do as much as possible to help develop this remote area, while recognizing that it is up to the Afghan government to sustain the work for the future.

Next to their base, the Marines are refurbishing an old building that will serve as a district government office, so when provincial officials do come here to visit, they can have a place to meet and even stay overnight.

"It's all about letting the Afghan government take control of what we rehabilitate," said Maj. Rudy Quiles, who is with the Washington-based 4th Civil Affairs Group. "I can build the best health clinics, but it's up to them for staffing it, maintaining it." The problem of scarce skilled personnel in dangerous or faraway areas could be solved by offering qualified Afghans increased pay to serve there -- an idea championed by U.S. officials.

"In this country, there has to be sufficient remuneration to justify the risk," Vilsack said.

He said the U.S. Agriculture Department is committing $20 million "to build that capacity, to ultimately help them get people down in the countryside."

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