Afghan government falls short in Kandahar

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan, says that a large operation to clear insurgent fighters from key regions just west of Kandahar is in its "final stages" and that forces have advanced more quickly than anticipated.
By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 7:53 PM

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - Despite months of American prodding, the Afghan government has failed to fill dozens of key positions in Kandahar, leaving an ineffectual local administration that U.S. officials fear will cripple the battlefield progress the military says it is making in the Taliban stronghold.

Just a month before President Obama will review the state of the Afghan war, top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and other military officers are making their case that the influx of American troops has pushed the Taliban out of key parts of Kandahar. But the Afghan government that U.S. officials hoped could step in to provide basic services remains a skeleton staff of unskilled bureaucrats that is incapable of functioning on its own, according to U.S. officials.

For the past year, the United States and its NATO allies have tried to build a Kandahar administration that can address residents' grievances and sway them from the Taliban. The U.S. has also embarked on a massive spending spree in order to prop up Kandahar authorities and provide basic services. But with power monopolized by the central government in Kabul, the provincial and municipal offices in southern Afghanistan's largest city are hamstrung and undermanned.

"The security picture is improving so fast and so dramatically that it puts the shortfall in civilian capacity in alarming relief," said one U.S. official in Kandahar. "The potential single failure point is the Afghan government."

With little help coming from Kabul, American money is pouring in for Afghans to build roads, dig wells, pick-up trash, repair culverts and refurbish mosques with solar-powered public-address systems. For $2.8 million in U.S. military funds, Kandahar residents will receive a nursing and midwifery clinic, and $4.7 million more will bring a secure housing complex for judges afraid to work in Taliban territory.

Hundreds of millions more are being pumped through United States Agency for International Development contracts to supply electricity, water, and new office buildings for Afghan officials who, in many cases, do not exist.

"Right now, the government capacity is so anemic we have to do it," said the U.S. official who, like others, was not authorized to speak for the record. "We are acting as donor and government. That's not sustainable."

Numbers misleading

Only about 40 Afghans work for the city government, out of 120 job slots, and the governor's staff faces a similar shortfall. But even these numbers are misleading, as many of those on staff serve in menial jobs such as cooks or gardeners.

In the four key rural districts surrounding the city - Zhari, Panjwayi, Argandab and Dand - there are 44 critical jobs, such as district governors, financial officers and agricultural advisers, according to the U.S. military. Just 12 of them now show up to work. The city of Kandahar, with one million people and a flood of construction projects, for months had a single engineer. Doctors and nurses have been recruited for health clinics that have no managers.

The Taliban campaign to kill and intimidate government employees in Kandahar makes recruitment a hard sell. When Noor Ahmad Nazari was gunned down on his way home from work Oct. 4, it was the second time the city's deputy mayor had been assassinated in six months.

The pay does little to entice. An Afghan working for the U.S.-led coalition or a foreign nonprofit can earn more than $1,000 a month; at city hall, $70. "The Afghan government cannot compete with this wartime economy," said another American official in Kandahar.

Several months ago, U.S. officials tried to circumvent the problem by hiring and paying Afghan government employees on their own. But after about a dozen were put on the payroll, a U.S. official said, the Karzai government objected and closed down the effort, saying it set a bad precedent for other provinces.

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