By Mirwais Harooni and Jeremy Laurence
AAB BAREEK/KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - For all the billions of dollars in foreign aid that have poured into Afghanistan over the past 12 years, Sajeda, her head-to-toe burqa covered in dust, sobs that the world has forgotten the poorest of the poor in the largely untroubled north of the country.
A deadly landslide last week exposed the extreme poverty in the remote mountainous area and also highlighted one of the paradoxes of Western aid: the northern region which supported the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 has got significantly less help than the south and east, home of the Taliban militants.
Over the past decade, much of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding has been spent in the strongholds of the insurgents as part of Washington's strategy to win the "hearts and minds" of the local population.
"We are the poorest and most unfortunate people of this country and no one pays attention to us. We are forgotten," said Sajeda, who lost 12 members of her family in the landslide that killed hundreds in northern Badakhshan province.
Pointing to simple mud-brick homes that escaped the landslide in the village of Aab Bareek, the 33-year-old screams: "Look at those houses. Are those for the living?"
Time is running out for the mostly Tajik and Uzbek people of Badakhshan, home to the Northern Alliance which helped U.S. forces drive the Taliban from power, to tap international aid. As Western forces wind down operations in Afghanistan, foreign donors are also pulling back.
At the start of the year, U.S. lawmakers halved civilian aid for Afghanistan, reflecting growing reluctance in Congress to continue generous aid levels there, concerns about waste and fraud, and frustration with the Afghan government itself. Other foreign donors are expected to make similar cuts.
Over the past decade, a disproportionate share of U.S. aid, which makes about two-thirds of all development assistance in Afghanistan, has ended up in the southern provinces where it has been used to achieve political and military objectives.
A U.S. official said that between 2009-14 more than 70 percent of USAID spending, amounting to about $4.7 billion, went to the south and east.
An official from USAID said the agency's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance had committed more $30 million since the start of last year to address the needs of people in Badakhshan and other remote, flood-prone provinces.
"For much of the intervention, we know that aid was distorted by military priorities, that is pretty clear," says Matt Waldman, an associate fellow at London think-tank Chatham House. "The trouble is, that very often undermines its effectiveness."
WHERE IS THE AID?
Despite the most expensive reconstruction effort ever undertaken in a single country, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest states.
The poverty headcount varies significantly between the provinces, from as low as 10 per cent to more than 70 per cent. It is most severe in the northeast, central highlands and parts of the southeast.
Badakhshan is one of the poorest: more than 60 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, according the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarians Affairs, using an index showing it costs $25 a month to buy enough food to survive.
"Nobody has given money to spend on developmental projects. We do not have resources to spend in our district, our province is a remote one and attracts less attention," says Haji Abdul Wadod, governor of the Argo district that includes Aab Bareek.
"The government has done a lot, but the international community has paid less attention."
Badakhshan, once a stopover point on the Silk Route, is one of the poorest places on earth. There is just one paved road, dotted with pot-holes, from the provincial capital Faizabad to Kunduz, a city three hours to the west that is connected to Kabul and other parts of the country. Most travel in the province is by horse or donkey.
Reconstruction and relief in Badakhshan has mostly fallen to Germany, along with a handful of small non-governmental organizations, which have built among other things small mini-hydro plants on the slopes of the towering Hindu Kush mountains.
"Not only our villagers but most villagers around Badakhshan are forgotten by the government," says the village leader of Aab Bareek, Haji Azizullah. "We haven't received enough to even buy a box of matches."
Yet, this year the U.S. contribution to the international relief and reconstruction, starting from 2002, will top $100 billion, according to U.S. auditors, known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
That figure is a fraction of the amount the United States has spent on its military campaign.
Most of the U.S. money earmarked for relief and reconstruction since 2002 has actually gone to security, leaving just over $26 billion to governance and development, and nearly $3 billion for humanitarian aid, SIGAR says.
A report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2011 said the United States was focused on short-term stabilization projects in the south and east in a bid to win "hearts and minds" instead of tackling longer term development projects.
Once the most violent city in Afghanistan, the security of Kandahar, in the south, has improved significantly, and there have been noticeable improvements to roads, as well as new municipal buildings, schools and health clinics. However, millions of dollars have been skimmed by corrupt contractors and officials.
Multi-million dollar power projects in Kandahar and Helmand, both funded by USAID and both strongholds of the Taliban, have been delayed for years due to issues with contractors.
The irony that most of Washington's aid has ended up in the 'badlands' of the south and east is not lost on the village leader of the landslide-stricken Aab Bareek village.
"They only invest in places where there are insurgents," complains Azizullah, the village leader. "After something is built the militants then come back in a day, or month, and destroy it."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Robin Pomeroy)