Afghan central to U.S. push in Kandahar faced allegations in job with contractor

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A08

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- Before he became America's best hope for reforming Kandahar's cutthroat political system, provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa was fired from his job with a U.S. government contractor over allegations of mismanagement and corruption, according to officials familiar with his tenure.

Wesa's 10 months with Bethesda-based contractor DAI ended in July 2007 with accusations that he had used his position as a field coordinator to benefit his tribe and family, former colleagues said. In the context of Afghan corruption, which is pervasive and often involves government officials siphoning off huge sums of money, the allegations were minor. But the questions about his integrity and management abilities were serious enough that they cost him his job, the officials said.

Now Wesa stands at the center of U.S. efforts to build a credible government in Kandahar as 10,000 American troops arrive to bolster his administration. An agriculture professor who spent more than a decade in Canada, Wesa is burdened by the perception that he is an outsider who cannot stand up to the city's most powerful people. He has a small staff and no significant budget and relies on the support that comes with U.S. firepower. As their country faces a growing Taliban insurgency, many Afghans question whether Wesa is the right man for the job.

"I think this post is too big for him," said Namatullah Argandabi, the head of the Kandahar Youth Federation, who grew up in the same village as Wesa. "He's an agriculture expert. He's not a wartime governor."

Wesa denied that he was fired by DAI, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or that he was involved in any impropriety during his time with the company. American officials in Kandahar said they are aware of the allegations but characterized them as insignificant and no longer relevant.

Beginning in October 2006, Wesa, who had worked as a consultant at other foreign firms, oversaw more than 20 people in the Kandahar office of DAI's local governance and community development program.

While there, he had disagreements with international staff members who disliked his management style and thought some of his decisions benefited his relatives, according to interviews with eight current and former DAI employees.

In one case, he used USAID funds to build a gravel road in the Arghandab valley on the outskirts of Kandahar city. The $400,000 road ran through Wesa's home village of Kohak, where he owned property. In another, Wesa rented office space for DAI in a Kandahar building allegedly owned by his wife's family. After Wesa's tenure, DAI officials said they found some disorganized bookkeeping, including untranslated receipts and unsigned bid documents. "There was a lot of money missing," said one former DAI official, although others dispute this.

"He had no management experience," one official said. "He had no respect and understanding for the procurement process."

DAI spokesman Steven O'Connor said that the company does not comment on personnel issues and that he would not address why Wesa left his job.

In an interview Monday, Wesa denied favoring his family or the Mohammadzai tribe. He said the Arghandab road linked 14 villages and served the community well. He said he left DAI because his mother was sick and because he had to finish writing a chapter on Afghan agriculture for a book being compiled in India.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, Wahid Omar, said the president was unaware of the allegations. "The president appointed Governor Wesa because of his good educational background and good work background," Omar said. "If there was something like this, we don't know why DAI kept quiet about it."

Afghans who worked with Wesa at DAI rose to his defense, saying he was well liked and ran an organized office. They said the conflict amounted to personal friction between Wesa and foreign colleagues who did not like taking direction from an Afghan.

"He was really pushing everyone to follow procedure and policy. He was pushing everyone to respect the chain of command," said one current DAI employee. "That's why some international staff didn't like him."

Wesa has made steady progress as governor since Karzai appointed him in December 2008, several U.S. officials said. He has grown more confident in public, they said, and more assertive in demanding resources from the government in Kabul. "I don't think he's corrupt," said a U.S. official in Kandahar. "We could do worse."

American officials here view their task as helping to connect Wesa's understaffed government to the people of Kandahar. They consider these crucial summer months as something like an election campaign for the governor and other Afghan officials.

"What would the mayor and governor do if they were trying to get elected to these positions that have been handed to them?" said one U.S. official in Kandahar.

The answer for U.S. officials is an urgent outreach campaign to make Wesa more visible and to publicize his achievements. They are helping him craft newspaper ads that promote his record and call on people to support the government. They are funding his gatherings with powerful city residents who have influence in the violent rural districts. To take advantage of his agricultural experience, they have sought to cast him as "farmer in chief."

"When we have the trust of the people, nobody can defeat us," Wesa said. "The problem is: We have ideas, but we don't have resources."

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth in Washington and special correspondents Javed Hamdard in Kandahar and Rahimullah Samander in Kabul contributed to this report.

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