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Afghanistan’s Frustrating Rebuilding Work

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The U.S.-led coalition is spending hundreds of millions of dollars constructing roads, bridges and buildings across Afghanistan. For the troops on the ground, it can be a frustrating and delicate job.

COMMENTARY

By Dan Ephron
Newsweek

July 14, 2007 – Doing business in Afghanistan can be a difficult undertaking for an earnest American Air Force officer. I’m riding in an armored convoy with Capt. Harry Jackson to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chardeh, a small town where the American-led coalition has overseen construction of a new school for girls. The project is one of hundreds around the country managed by the coalition to help bring Afghanistan into the modern era. When the school opens, it will mark the first time Chardeh has set aside a learning space for girls, who were barred by the Taliban from studying at all and still face huge inequalities.

Jackson inherited management of the project when he deployed to Afghanistan in March. With 17 years experience in the military, he is a true believer in winning over local hearts and minds. Jackson waves or gives the thumbs-up sign to almost every Afghan we pass during the three-hour trip through the Parwan province. Over the rattle of the Humvee engine, he explains how reconstruction projects help shore up President Hamid Karzai’s government and weaken the Taliban.

When we reach Chardeh, I get a glimpse of what Jackson and his crew are up against. For the school to be seen as an Afghan achievement, Jackson has invited Parwan Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa to cut the ribbon. But Taqwa is hard to pin down, and today he’s a no show. Also missing is the appointed principal of the school. The Afghan contractor hired by the coalition to build the two-story structure tells us the principal demanded a 10 percent kickback on the project, not an uncommon way of doing business in this region. But with the U.S. government signing the checks, bakshish is not an option.

Jackson, who is tall and balding and keeps his Kevlar vest and helmet on during most of the two hours we spend at the school, improvises a way forward. To compensate for the governor’s absence, he tells the contractor to summon village elders for the ceremony and the ensuing lunch. And he shames the principal publicly. “We’ll see how the governor feels when he hears what a high-quality principal he has,” he says aloud, drawing laughter. Still, the ribbon cutting is not the festive occasion Jackson had hoped for and the banquet of rice and meat looks dicey to the soldiers. I notice one of them swallowing an antibiotic regularly handed out by the team medic to preempt possible food poisoning.

Such is America’s involvement in Afghanistan these days: not just a war on the resurgent Taliban and a lumbering hunt for Al Qaeda leaders, but also a slew of construction projects in a country the size of Texas. Using only Afghan contractors and mainly Afghan labor, the U.S.-led coalition is spending hundreds of millions of dollars constructing roads, bridges and buildings across this country. The projects are overseen by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) like the one Jackson serves on. But even that’s a misnomer. In most cases, the teams are not so much rebuilding as building from scratch. Outside the Kabul area, most roads in Afghanistan are unpaved. Most residents live without electricity or running water. Police stations and municipal buildings are often mud huts.

Critics say the teams are small and the spending far from enough; Jackson is among only about 70 people overseeing projects in two of Afghanistan’s 33 provinces. In a scathing report earlier this year, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been characterized by “the desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace.” Still, with the Iraq situation getting no better and the Taliban stirring anew in some parts of Afghanistan, the PRTs might be the brightest spot on Washington’s board. “Because we’re a poor country, the help is never enough,” Parwan community leader Abdul Zahir Salangi told me days earlier, during a military helicopter ride over his district to assess flood damage from recent rains. “But we’re glad for every road they help build.”

From Chardeh, we drive deeper into Parwan, stirring up plumes of dust, while following a river that irrigates a narrow swath of the valley. The military describes Parwan as “permissible,” meaning there’s almost no Taliban activity in the province, and soldiers can travel in relative safety. Still, troops wear vests and helmets in their Humvees and operate an electronic device that jams potential IED detonation frequencies. About two hours west of Chardeh, Jackson’s team has overseen construction of a health clinic in the town Sheikh Ali. Here, too, a planned ribbon-cutting ceremony is marred by a setback, this time the shoddy workmanship of an Afghan contractor. The plaster is cracked, many of the light fixtures don’t work, the roof leaks and a retaining wall looks wobbly. Jackson, who is an engineer by trade, walks the contractor from room to room, describing through an interpreter what needs to be fixed.

The teams walk a fine line. By overmanaging, they work against the perception they aim for—that the projects are mainly about Afghans helping themselves. Undermanaging exposes the projects to incompetence and corruption. Jackson, who harks from Illinois, exudes Midwestern courtesy even as he reminds the contractor that he won’t be hired for future projects if this one sours. But Jackson has lost his main bargaining chip, a staged payment scheme that forces contractors to pass inspections before getting their money. This contractor has already been paid in full by the previous reconstruction team. Though the contractor promises to make the fixes, Jackson looks dispirited. “What an utter disappointment,” he lets out in the Humvee.

Two days later, I’m sitting in on a meeting between members of another reconstruction team and the governor of the Kapisa province, Abdul Sattar Murad. Western-educated and a veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation, Murad faces a resurgent Taliban in the southern part of his province. U.S. Army Capt. Jordan Berry, who overseas the coalition’s reconstruction efforts in Kapisa, suggests quick projects in the south to show residents that the government is doing something for them. But the security threat posed by Taliban forces makes access difficult. Later, Murad tells me the problem is that the government is not delivering what people need. “In remote parts of the country there is practically a vacuum of authority, a vacuum of power.” The construction projects help the government fill that vacuum, he says. But the Taliban is also finding a way into the void.

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Written by afghandevnews

July 14, 2007 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Development

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