Afghan government falls short in Kandahar

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.

In Kabul, little attention is paid to Kandahar, Afghan and U.S. officials said, despite its key position in the war against the Taliban. Cabinet ministers rarely visit.

At a recent meeting in Kabul, Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander, showed eight Afghan Cabinet ministers PowerPoint slides illustrating the vacancies in key Kandahar positions and urged them to take action.

Poorly developed local governance throughout Afghanistan is partly an outgrowth of the decision after the Taliban's overthrow in 2001 to vest most of the power in the central government. For key positions in all of Afghanistan's districts, the president's office makes the decisions.

"Everything's centralized, everything happens in Kabul," said Kandahar's mayor, Ghulam Haider Hamidi.

Build loyalty with pay

In one positive sign, the federal government has approved a one-time exemption to allow Hamidi, the mayor, to increase pay for city employees to about $500 from $70. But Hamidi said he might not see the money for weeks or months.

When Hamidi, a former accountant who spent two decades in Fairfax County, took his job in 2007, the city government had $66,000 in the bank. Through property registration fees and other tax collection, he has raised that sum to $5.5 million, he said. But he has had to postpone plans to build $4.2 million in roads and parks because he cannot get approval from Kabul to buy the land.

"The Cabinet approval takes a long time, and we cannot start the projects," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. military and civilian officials are forging ahead with their own development projects. One of the largest efforts is a $225 million plan to supply Kandahar with more electricity by building two 10 megawatt power plants, upgrading the distribution system and paying for enough fuel to run generators for a year.

The spate of development projects is intended to win public support, but in a way that gives credit to the Afghan government. Using money from the commander's emergency response program, a new civil affairs battalion has begun 78 Kandahar projects totaling $19 million just in the past five months, according to Lt. Col. Kelly Thrasher, the civil affairs battalion commander.

American officials worry that new roads, power plants, or other projects might not be maintained when the U.S. begins pulling troops out of Afghanistan next July . Thrasher said community health clinics have been refurbished in Kandahar but remained unused because they could not be equipped or staffed.

"I'm sure there is trepidation: If we pulled out tomorrow, what would they do?" Thrasher said.

It is difficult to judge whether such massive investment wins the Afghan government much allegiance. With 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Kandahar, the collateral damage of military operations often seems to make a more indelible impression.

"The Americans brought us more security, but what have they done? They destroyed our houses, they destroyed our gardens and orchards," said Juma Khan, 70, who evacuated his family from its home in the Zhari district of Kandahar to avoid the fighting.

When the Taliban ruled his village, he said, members would search residents' pockets for signs of government affiliation, ready to lynch or behead. But farmers who abstained from such government support could tend their vineyards in peace. The U.S. soldiers, he said, have uprooted crops to eliminate insurgent cover and drive armored trucks through the fields, which the Taliban then seed with bombs.

"How could I be happy with them?" he said.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

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