France's foreign minister walked into a remote Afghan village on Friday to talk with small farmers and local tribal leaders about how to bypass corrupt officials and bring aid directly to those who need it.
Bernard Kouchner, in Afghanistan to attend President Hamid Karzai's inauguration to a second term Thursday, spent the night at Tora, a NATO forward operating base held by the French Foreign Legion in the Surobi region about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of the capital in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains _ where hundreds of insurgents operate.
Under heavy escort but without a helmet or body armor, Kouchner met in the early morning with a tribal elder, Haji Dad, who claimed to be more than 100 years old, and shared herb tea at his mud brick home with local leaders from the Tizin valley.
All complained about bitter poverty, saying foreign aid is usually lost in Kabul before it reaches small hamlets like Gandah Kasaray, where there is no electricity, road or running water.
"If you've got a project to help us, give us the money directly because otherwise it will be stolen," said Malek Rostam, as he and other tribal leaders sat down for a "shura," or traditional meeting, with the minister and Brig. Gen. Marcel Druart, the head of the 3,000-plus strong French contingent in Afghanistan.
Karzai's NATO allies say they will closely monitor whether the Afghan president will follow through on pledges to improve his administration's record on delivering government services to the people. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others say they plan to increase direct contacts with provincial leaders closer to local needs.
"We've got to work directly with these guys, I've done enough NGO work to tell you so," Kouchner told the French aid officials at the shura meeting. A founder of the charity group Doctors Without Borders, Kouchner spent several years in Afghanistan helping mujahedeen guerrillas battling a Russian invasion during the 1980s.
Maj. Ronan Cottin, the head of the U.S.-led civil-military aid program for the French-controlled areas, said his services were working to beef up local village syndicates so they can receive aid directly.
Some 1 million euros ($1.5 million) are available for Tizin valley's 5,000 villagers this year, Cottin said, including a few tractors, grain, beehives and fertilizer. That's a mere fragment of the billions of dollars provided for Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. But Kouchner said only 10 percent of international funds were believed to have actually reached the population so far.
He and other officials say it is crucial to give more to relatively calm valleys like Tizin, where residents have largely expelled the Taliban on their own, so that other areas see the benefits of switching over to the government and coalition side.