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In Afghanistan, U.S. 'civilian surge' falls short in building local government

By Josh Boak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; A17

KABUL - Efforts to improve local government in critical Afghan districts have fallen far behind schedule, undermining President Hamid Karzai's hope to reduce the presence of U.S. advisers in the country, according to U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program.

It is now expected to take four more years to assess the needs of more than 80 "key terrain" districts where the bulk of the population lives, based on figures from Afghan officials who said that escalating violence has made it difficult to recruit civil servants to work in the field.

Meanwhile, many of the U.S. experts deployed as part of a "civilian surge" to help strengthen local government remain hunkered down in the capital, Kabul, removed from the front lines where they are most needed.

"For a lot of reasons, the 'civilian surge' never amounted to what it was claimed to be," said a U.S. civilian adviser based in southern Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Security rules that restrict movement and access have gotten tighter and are making it increasingly difficult for people to do their jobs, wherever they are located."

Building local government is considered important to countering the influence of the Taliban and preparing the way for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Citing a shortage of money and manpower, several Afghan officials said it is too soon for Karzai's push to dismantle the civilian-military teams involved in provincial and district governance.

During a news conference last month, Karzai compared the teams to plumbers who repair broken pipes and leaky faucets.

"The plumber doesn't stay in your house once the pipe is fixed," he said, after concluding that Afghan bureaucrats "can reach any part of the country that we want to reach."

More work to do

Afghan and U.S. officials, however, say the work is far from finished.

Delays have particularly hamstrung the District Delivery Program, which is supposed to evaluate and staff local branches of government ministries in the roughly 80 priority districts.

By the end of last year, the program was supposed to have finished initial assessments of 42 districts, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending Afghan counterparts. But the Afghan Independent Directorate of Local Governance completed just 15 evaluations, the official said, because "it took considerable time" for reluctant ministries to "own" the program.

At that pace, the assessment phase would wrap up in the middle of 2015, a year after President Obama plans to end combat operations for the U.S.-led coalition.

In some cases, the evaluations have not been followed up with the type of concrete action expected under the program. Funds promised for hiring more civil servants and building government facilities have yet to flow into Wardak province's Sayad Abad district, for instance, even though its assessment was performed last March.

"The way it is managed, it is not a District Delivery Program but a district discussion program," said Haleem Fedai, the governor of Wardak province.

Fedai blamed the holdup in part on a lack of coordination between the central Afghan government, which is implementing the program, and the U.S.-led coalition, which is paying for it with tens of millions of dollars in cash grants and construction money.

Nader Yama, a program manager for the local governance directorate, has struggled to add district-level staff - an average of 45 are needed for each district - because of Taliban fighting.

The private Afghanistan NGO Safety Office said insurgent attacks jumped by 64 percent last year, reaching a monthly peak of 1,541 in September.

"If we don't have security and freedom of movement, we can't bring civil servants in there," Yama said.

Staying in Kabul

Many past and current U.S. officials also said there is a shortage of capable civilian experts who can mentor Afghans in the field on basic civic tasks such as maintaining sewers or managing an office.

Of the 1,100 U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan, two-thirds are stationed in Kabul, according to the State Department.

"At best, our Kabul-based experts simply reinforce the sense of big government coming from Kabul that ultimately alienates populations and leaders in the provinces," a former U.S. official said. "It was obvious to us in the field that while the government was in Kabul, the need for governance was in the provinces and districts. It is no coincidence that this is where the Taliban put its main effort."

State Department records show there has been an increase of experts in the field, with the number of advisers increasing from 44 to 360 over the past two years, after the civilian surge was launched as part of an increased U.S. focus on building government and economic institutions at the provincial level. Current plans call for adding 100 more advisers to areas outside the capital.

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