Coalition tries to build cadre of Afghan leaders

AP News
Posted: Aug 16, 2011 6:50 AM
Coalition tries to build cadre of Afghan leaders

The local Afghan leader's community meeting was off to an unpromising start.

Hours after the meeting, called a shura, was supposed to begin, only seven old men waited at the gate of U.S. Marine Patrol Base Salaam Bazaar in the northern part of Helmand province.

Frustrated, Naw Zad District Chief Said Murad Sadtak chastised an Afghan army commander.

"Why did you not invite more people?" he demanded. "It was your task to tell the people and make sure that they come to see us so we can discuss their problems. It's kind of a waste that I am here."

The army commander had invited locals to the small fortified camp, but sometimes those invitations were extended during gunfights when soldiers and U.S. Marines were using private Afghan homes and farmers' poppy fields for cover.

Sadtak continued to complain and his American mentor, U.S. Marine Maj. Aniela Szymanski, moved to the old man's side.

"Maybe we should welcome those who have come to see you," she said gently.

In Helmand, unpracticed local leaders are wielding the levers of a fragile government for the first time.

They urge local communities to support the government and reject the Taliban, often in places where the insurgency is more conspicuous than the new Afghan state.

But many local Afghan leaders still lack skills and resources to address severe problems facing Helmand communities, including drought, joblessness and the chaos of living between two determined combat forces. Others are cut off from their constituents by insecurity. Some are corrupt.

This is the challenge for the international coalition: create a cadre of Afghan leaders and institutions robust enough to resist the Taliban's advances after NATO withdraws combat forces by the end of 2014.

Filling government positions remains difficult due to illiteracy and insecurity. Provincial officials are under constant threat of assassination, so they live within Western military installations and must be escorted outside by U.S. military convoys and helicopters.

The week Sadtak met with tribal elders in Siraqula, the mayor of Kandahar's provincial seat was assassinated by a suicide attacker who detonated a bomb hidden in his turban. A few days later, a dozen policemen were killed by a suicide bomber in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

Lashkar Gah was one of five provincial capitals and two provinces chosen to start the transition from NATO to Afghan control. The coalition hopes to use the security zone around the provincial capital and the central Helmand River Valley as a foothold to push Afghan governance into outlying areas like Kajaki.

"My son was blown up," a village elder told Kajaki District Chief Mohammad Salim Khan Rodi during a recent meeting at his compound inside a Marine camp. "Can you compensate me? I am just a poor man. My oldest son was my right hand. Without him we have nothing."

Rodi offered his condolences, but no funds.

There were 20 local elders at the meeting in Kajaki, a good showing at a small, mine-encircled Marine camp. Rodi has hosted four other shuras in the last six months; none of them drew more than 24 men. The old men told him that drought is withering their crops and that they need more electricity from the Kajaki Hydroelectric Power Station to run irrigation pumps on their wells. And they demanded the Marines stop night raids in nearby villages.

Rodi offered his visitors no promises. Electrical power is low because the Taliban illegally tap the power lines, he said, and insurgent checkpoints and bomb threats are delaying a long overdue upgrade to the power plant.

"You yell at me to turn the power on," Rodi told them. "But go tell the Taliban to let you have more electricity and see what they say."

And night raids would cease when residents stand up to the Taliban, the district chief said.

"The government is here to serve the people, but you have to tell the Taliban to stop planting IEDs," Rodi said. "The other day, two policemen who protect me _ they are as close to me as my own sons _ were hurt because they stepped on an IED."

The villagers said they were afraid of mines too, but had to defer to the Taliban in the absence of a government security presence outside of Kajaki's district center. About 90 Afghan policemen are in Kajaki, but they remain within the Marines' perimeter. Namatullah, 55, a village elder who voiced many of the delegation's concerns, said he got permission from the Taliban to visit the district chief.

"In this situation, if we stand on our feet, they will cut them out from under us," Namatullah said. "If they kill 800 men or one man, no one cares, no one will help us."

There are no functioning government schools or medical clinics in Kajaki district. Marines in Kajaki are in a defensive position around the dam. In the area, the insurgency prevents Afghan governance from taking hold, Rodi said.

"I'm so isolated from the people," Rodi said in an interview after the shura. "And I'm not able to offer them my help the way I'd like to."

In many of Afghanistan's most insecure areas, Western diplomats and military commanders provide key links between local Afghan officials and provincial and national institutions. Western advisers organize travel and payment transfers for Afghan officials. Advisers also hold daily meetings with their Afghan counterparts to impart their best political counsel.

Bryan Jalbert, a political officer for the State Department, meets every afternoon with the Musa Qala district chief at his office at the Marines' battalion headquarters.

They discuss joint coalition and Afghan projects that will lend credibility to the local government. Sometimes they share pictures and stories about their families.

Jalbert says he walks a fine line between teaching Afghans officials how to serve their own people and reinforcing a culture of dependency on transient foreigners.

"I had an Afghan official come to me and he wanted to show me the rashes on his legs from the heat. He wanted me to find him a new air conditioner," said Jalbert. "I don't do that. If he wants an air conditioner, he can get it through their process."

Whenever possible, Jalbert said he runs funding and planning of projects through provincial institutions to develop Afghan independence and to help the state win the allegiance of the local population.

The most prominent project of this sort in Musa Qala is a British-funded $970,000 grand mosque. It will replace another mosque that NATO bombed after the Taliban used it as an armory.

The district chief, Naimatullah, who goes by one name, is managing the project and Afghan contractors are providing local labor. Apart from funding, the coalition takes a low profile on the mosque project. Jalbert is monitoring the construction, but discretely.

"I fly high cover on that one," he said. "You have to keep in mind, you're an adviser. This is not your country."

Despite the progress in Musa Qala, less than a third of provincial staff positions were filled.

"This has a very negative effect on my administration," Naimatullah said. "I do not have a judge or criminal investigator. I do not have any legal or irrigation officials. So the government cannot solve problems related to these matters, like legal or water disputes."

And Naimatullah is worried that his Western partners are counting the days before their departure. His district government would not last long without the coalition, he said.

"If America left now," he said, "it would be a kind of betrayal."