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U.S. aid workers find few trained Afghan partners

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A07

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."

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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