KARZ, Afghanistan — In this mud-brick village, the United Nations put up the rock retaining wall along the riverbed to keep the road from washing out in floods. The United States paid to fertilize the wheat fields. Hashmat Karzai, a cousin of the president, paid about $70,000 from his own pocket to string up power lines.
As for the Afghan government, it remains all but invisible, even though Karz is the ancestral home of President Hamid Karzai. “The government itself has not done anything,” said Abdul Ali, a village elder.
The United States and its allies have devoted years of effort and billions of dollars to improve the delivery of basic services in rural Afghanistan. If Afghan leadership were to have taken hold anywhere, it might well have been in Karz, a farming area on the outskirts of Kandahar city still populated by relatives and tribesmen of the man who has ruled Afghanistan through a decade of war.
Instead, what is emerging in ever starker relief is a governance vacuum as U.S. forces begin to draw down. As the Americans leave, taking with them a main source of economic stimulus, U.S. officials and residents say what worries them most is the weakness of the local and provincial governments being left behind, which command virtually no resources and almost no authority.
That lack of government progress is apparent every day in Karz with the line of villagers beating a path to Hashmat Karzai’s door.
Karzai holds no official post; his prominence in the village stems from his status as a prosperous and powerful tribal elder and his relationship with the president. He is the former owner of a private security company, Asia Security Group, which sent men to guard U.S. bases, and he currently rents out land for a hotel near NATO’s Kandahar Airfield.
And yet each day the villagers of Karz file into Karzai’s courtyard with a fresh list of problems they say they can find no audience for in the offices of government. One by one they plead for electricity for their irrigation pumps, a clinic for their sick children, or information on the whereabouts of a relative detained by American troops.
“Where should he go? Which door should he knock?” Hashmat Karzai said as he motioned to one of his supplicants. “This is what’s killing the people of Kandahar. You go try to see the governor, it’s impossible to see him. The police chief? The mayor? It would take a month to see them.”
“There’s a distance between locals and the government. There’s a big gap,” Karzai said. “How are you going to cover that gap? I haven’t figured it out yet.”
By September, the number of U.S. troops in Kandahar and other, nearby provinces will drop to 13,500, down from a high in April 2011 of nearly 20,000. The bloody battles with the Taliban of the past few years — in Kandahar city and the nearby Arghandab Valley — have shifted farther west, into the rural minefields of Zhari and Panjwai districts.
While the locus of violence has changed, the overall strength of the insurgency has stayed about the same, according to Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins Jr., the top American commander in Kandahar province. He says he is confident that the Afghan soldiers and police can prevail in a fight with the Taliban.
But Huggins said he is less sanguine about the ability of the government to satisfy the people — a responsibility he says must be fulfilled in order for Afghanistan to ultimately keep the insurgency at bay.
In a recent meeting with Kandahar Gov. Toryalai Wesa, Huggins said, he delivered the message that Afghans urgently need their government’s help. “It’s the people who are not supportive of [the Afghan government]. And I told him, ‘Why aren’t they supportive? . . . You’re not delivering the services. You’ve got to hear the voices. You’ve got to bring some level of governance.’ ”
“In the end, security is only going to be as good as the government that enables it and supports it,” Huggins said.
In recent years, the United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Kandahar to try to deliver those services on the Afghan government’s behalf.
A major source of irrigation water comes from the reservoir at the Dahla Dam outside Kandahar city, which the United States is paying about $200 million to enlarge because it is about one-third silted up. Much of the city’s electricity comes from two 10-megawatt generators that require an annual U.S. subsidy of about $50 million to pay for the diesel fuel. But that subsidy is scheduled to run out sometime during the middle of next year, forcing Afghans to either cut back on power or significantly raise fees.
Afghans fear that the wartime economy, which boomed with NATO contracts to build and supply Kandahar Airfield, known as KAF, will come crashing down as the troops and money depart.
“Ninety percent of Kandahar’s economy is run from KAF,” Hashmat Karzai said. “Once that money dries out, what’s going to happen?”
Even more than fears about security, the villagers of Karz say they are worried about economics. The impoverished village has no electricity or clinic and has a sporadic water supply to irrigate its vineyards.
Tucked in his shirt Karzai keeps two sheets of paper with the names of 25 residents he hoped would receive fertilizer handouts as part of an agriculture program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. What little tangible change he has noticed in Karz during the past decade — the retaining wall, the $6 cash-for-work jobs, a small bridge, a stone well — have come from foreign aid.
But on balance, the ascension of his fellow tribesman Hamid Karzai to the presidency has left Karz scarcely better off than before, the villagers said. There has not been major rebuilding here. Many of the homes, blasted into rubble during the Soviet war in the 1980s, have not been rebuilt. The golden era of the 1960s and ’70s — when President Karzai’s father, a parliament member, arranged for a canal to be built in Karz, when young Hamid Karzai played marbles with his friends and rode his horse through the vineyards — is a distant memory.
“Many of our young people are jobless now,” said Ahmadullah, a village elder. He has watched as more of these unemployed young men wile away their hours smoking hashish. If U.S.-funded day-labor paychecks dry up when the troops leave, he said, the lure of the Taliban will grow stronger.
The local official responsible for Karz is Amadullah Naziq, the governor of Dand district. The elders of Karz have given him a wish list: gravel roads with culverts, hand pumps for the wells, a clinic, an elementary school, and new huts for drying grapes into raisins.
Naziq’s office is itself powered by U.S.-funded diesel generators, and he says it simply does not possess the capacity to satisfy the needs of an impoverished rural population. Staffing such offices has been a problem for years, particularly as the Taliban began systematically assassinating local officials in Kandahar. Even now, Afghanistan’s district and provincial governments do not have budgets and collect no taxes; instead, money trickles down from Kabul through various ministries.
“How can we collect taxes when the people don’t have anything and we’re not providing them anything?” Naziq said.
Even some who have personally suffered from the U.S. troop presence are wary about the consequences of the departure. Abdullah, a 40-year-old car dealer, came to Hashmat Karzai’s home in Karz searching for information about his two brothers, who had been detained by American troops last month.
The raid came during Abdullah’s father’s funeral, when Afghan troops burst into a mosque, cuffed his two brothers and passed them to their American partners waiting outside.
“That’s what creates Taliban. This guy eventually is going to become a Talib. Imagine if this happened to you,” Karzai said.
And yet, Abdullah is not rejoicing over the U.S. troops’ departure. When the war started, Abdullah was a poor truck driver earning $200 a month ferrying raisins across southern Afghanistan. He took advantage of the wartime boom and became a vendor of cargo trucks to shuttle NATO supplies to military bases. He now earns 10 times as much.
“I’m very happy with their presence here,” Abdullah said. “Business has been good in Kandahar these past five years. I’m very worried about what will happen when the foreigners leave.”