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In Afghan region, U.S. spreads the cash to fight the Taliban

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

NAWA, AFGHANISTAN -- In this patch of southern Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy to keep the Taliban at bay involves an economic stimulus.

Thousands of men, wielding hoes and standing in knee-deep muck, are getting paid to clean reed-infested irrigation canals. Farmers are receiving seeds and fertilizer for a fraction of their retail cost, and many are riding around on shiny new red tractors. Over the summer, dozens of gravel roads and grain-storage facilities will be constructed -- all of it funded by the U.S. government.

Pumping reconstruction dollars into war zones has long been part of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, but the carpet bombing of Nawa with cash has resulted in far more money getting into local hands, far more quickly, than in any other part of Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development's agriculture program aims to spend upward of $30 million within nine months in this rural district of mud-walled homes and small farms. Other U.S. initiatives aim to bring millions more dollars to the area over the next year.

Because aid is so plentiful in Nawa -- seemingly everyone who wants a job has one -- many young men have opted to stop serving as the Taliban's guns for hire. Unlike neighboring Marja, where insurgent attacks remain a daily occurrence, the central parts of Nawa have been largely violence-free the past six months.

But the cash surge has also unleashed unintended and potentially troubling consequences. It is sparking new tension and rivalries within the community, and it is prompting concern that the nearly free seeds and gushing canals will result in more crops than farmers will be able to sell. It is also raising public expectations for handouts that the Afghan government will not be able to sustain once U.S. contributions ebb.

"We've blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects," said Ian Purves, a British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa.

U.S. officials responsible for Afghanistan policy contend that the initiative in Nawa, which is part of a $250 million effort to increase agricultural production across southern Afghanistan, was designed as a short-term jolt to resuscitate the economy and generate lasting employment. They say concerns about overspending are misplaced: After years of shortchanging Afghans on development aid, the officials maintain that they would rather do too much than too little.

"Our goal is to return Nawa to normalcy, to get folks back to their daily lives of farming, and that requires a large effort," said Rory Donohoe, USAID's agriculture program manager in Helmand province.

Of particular concern to some development specialists is USAID's decision to spend the entire $250 million over one year in parts of just two provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. In Nawa, which has a population of about 75,000, that works out to about $400 for every man, woman and child. The country's per-capita income, by comparison, is about $300 a year.

"This is a massive effort to buy people off so they won't fight us," said a U.S. development officer in southern Afghanistan.

The spending here is a preview of what the Obama administration wants to accomplish on a larger scale. USAID's "burn rate" in Afghanistan -- the amount it spends -- is about $300 million a month and will probably stay at that level for at least a year.

The White House recently asked Congress for an additional $4.4 billion for reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan, with the aim of increasing employment and promoting economic growth in areas beset by the insurgency.

Although some of that money will be directed through Afghan government ministries and local aid organizations to fund projects designed and run by Afghans, most of it will go to large, U.S.-based development firms with the ability to hire lots of people and spend lots of money quickly.

Among the programs in the pipeline is a $600 million effort to improve municipal governments across the country and to increase the provision of basic services to urban dwellers. The program is supposed to include extensive day-labor projects to pick up trash and plant trees, and it calls for the contractor to implement "performance-based" budgeting systems within two years, something that most U.S. cities do not have.

USAID also envisions spending $140 million to help settle property disputes. One of the agency's hoped-for achievements is to train Afghans to appraise and value land.

Some development specialists question whether Afghanistan can absorb the flood of money, or whether a large portion will be lost to corruption, inefficiency and dubious ventures funded to meet Washington-imposed deadlines.

"We've turned a fire hose on these guys -- and they can't absorb it," said a development specialist who has worked as a USAID contractor in Afghanistan for three years. "We're setting ourselves up for a huge amount of waste and fraud."

Improving farming

The $250 million agriculture program is the Obama administration's principal effort to create jobs and improve livelihoods in the two provinces where U.S. troops are concentrating their counterinsurgency mission this year. It was designed to address what senior administration officials, particularly presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, deemed to be scattershot and underfunded initiatives over the first eight years of the war to assist farmers, who make up most of the country's workforce.

The program aims to make farms more productive, thereby increasing employment and living standards. It would do so by cleaning canals so more water gets to crops, offering subsidized seeds so farmers would be encouraged to switch from growing opium-producing poppies, establishing cooperatives to share tractors and constructing a network of gravel roads so they can take their goods to market.

To forge links between residents and their government, a 42-member community council decides which canals to clean and which roads to improve.

USAID selected International Relief and Development (IRD), an Arlington-based nonprofit development firm, to run the program. To get the work started quickly, the agency gave the company the $250 million as a grant last summer, instead of hiring it under contract to do the work, which would have taken longer.

Grants also involve fewer auditing requirements for USAID, but once awarded they limit the government's ability to make changes.

The program has been a hit with Nawa residents since the day it began in December, largely because of the plentiful cash-for-work opportunities. Once the day labor began, unemployment disappeared almost overnight.

The initiative has put money in the pocket of almost every working-age male in the district. More than 7,000 residents have been hired for $5 a day to clean the canals, and a similar number of farmers have received vouchers for heavily discounted seeds and fertilizer. Thousands of others have benefited from additional forms of assistance through the program.

"We had nothing here before -- only bullets," said Gul Mohammed, a lanky tenant farmer, as he scooped mud from a narrow canal. He said the day labor is essential to feeding his family because he decided last fall, after a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Nawa, not to plant poppies on his 6.5-acre plot.

Now he is growing wheat, which fetches only about a quarter of what he would have made from poppies.

"We are so thankful for this work," he said. "Without it, we would be going hungry."

Local infighting

USAID's decision to involve the community council in the disbursement was intended to help build local governance. It has done that, but it has also generated new frictions in the district.

When the council was formed last fall, the seven principal tribal leaders in the area decided not to participate. They did not want to risk the Taliban's wrath by siding with the United States and the Afghan government. But now that the council has the ability to influence millions of dollars worth of projects, the leaders want a piece of the action.

The senior elder, Hayatullah Helmandi of the Barakzai tribe, has launched a campaign to discredit the council members, calling them opportunists and drug users. "The Marines should be working with us," he said.

The infighting has prompted concern among some U.S. officials in the area. "These tensions probably wouldn't be so severe if there wasn't as much money involved," one of them said.

Then there is the question of what to do with all the additional crops grown this year. Purves estimates that the program will increase agricultural production by tens of thousands of tons across central Helmand province.

"What on Earth will happen to that?" he said. "There's no way all of that can be gotten to market, and even if it could, there simply isn't a market for that much more food."

Holbrooke and USAID agriculture experts want to construct cold-storage facilities so the produce can be trucked to markets in other parts of Afghanistan or exported to nearby countries. But that effort will not be completed in time to help farmers with this year's crop.

The effort to spend the program funds as fast as possible has resulted in some items going to waste, according to people familiar with the effort.

Plastic tunnels to allow farmers to grow crops over the winter were not distributed until February -- well after the winter planting season -- so many of them simply used the plastic as window sheeting for their mud huts. The metal rods were turned into fences.

The cash-for-work programs are so plentiful and lucrative that some teachers and policemen sought to enroll before U.S. and Afghan officials barred their participation.

Among Nawa residents, the biggest worry is what will happen when the program ends Aug. 31. U.S. officials hope this effort will result in new farm jobs, but nobody thinks it will be enough to employ all of those participating in the day-labor projects. Although USAID is considering a follow-on agriculture program, it is not clear whether the labor component will be as large as it is now.

If not, Afghan officials said their government does not have the resources to make up the difference.

"Those cash-for-work men -- half of them used to be Taliban," said the district governor, Abdul Manaf. "If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they'll go back to the Taliban."

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