By Adrian Croft
GARDEZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Military-led teams set up to deliver aid projects in Afghanistan are winding down their operations, sparking concern among some local officials that the government is not ready to take over their development role.
Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) were a key part of U.S.-led forces' strategy "to win hearts and minds" in both Iraq and Afghanistan, building schools, hospitals and roads.
But now the teams, led by different countries in the coalition, are scaling back in Afghanistan as NATO-led forces hand over security responsibility to local commanders before most foreign combat troops pull out by the end of 2014.
Of the 22 existing today -- down from 26 last month -- three are expected to close by the middle of next year, NATO military officials have said.
The PRT in Paktia, a poor, mountainous province in eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan and used as a transit route by insurgents, was the first to open in Afghanistan in 2003.
The PRT was slated to close in December 2014, but the unit's U.S. commander said he was proposing to shut it earlier, in June 2013, on grounds that Afghans were ready to take on the work.
Naiz Mohammad Khalil, governor of the Sayid Karam district of Paktia, which borders Gardez and benefits from the PRT, said he would be "upset" when it closed.
"We need more mentors, we need them to stay for longer to train us more," he said in the provincial capital Gardez.
The PRT's commander, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Morse, said that when the PRT was established, "We were the only ones that were delivering the basic services to the people.
"That's important at the time when there was no one doing that, but now as the Afghan government stands up and starts to deliver basic services, the PRT can be looked (at) negatively, so we can't do that any longer," he told reporters during a media visit organized by NATO last week.
PROJECT NUMBERS DECLINE
In 2010, the Paktia PRT, headquartered at a U.S. military base near Gardez, managed 114 projects costing $15.5 million. In 2011, that fell to 101 projects worth $10 million and this year to 21 projects costing $800,000.
Of those projects, only three remain, Morse said.
Morse conceded that Kabul had not sent enough money to Paktia this year for development work. "We really felt that Paktia province is starting to stand on their own and they are getting funding from Kabul, (though) not in the amounts we would like to see," he said.
Before 2011, the Paktia PRT built agricultural dams, irrigation systems, wells, hospitals and schools. More recent projects have been more modest, ranging from solar lights for bazaars to a wall around a girls' school.
The main focus of the PRT's work has switched to advising and mentoring Afghan officials to provide services.
Paktia Governor Juma Khan Hamdard said while the provincial government would implement development projects well and act against corruption, he cautioned that the Afghan government did not have the money to make up for the fall in PRT funding.
"The ministers do not (have) money up in Kabul," Hamdard said.
The Paktia officials' fears echo greater concerns by Afghans over how development projects will be sustained once foreign donors pull the plug, which they are in the process of doing.
Donors pledged in Tokyo in July to give Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, $16 billion in development aid through 2015. But there are no guarantees for what will happen after that date.
There are also concerns by major donors and aid organizations that weak political will and graft could prevent funds reaching the right people at a crucial time.
Some development projects in Paktia will continue, paid for by international donors.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government aid arm, is financing one of the most important projects in Paktia, the paving of a section of highway connecting Gardez with the neighboring province of Khost.
The World Bank is funding an Afghan-led project to build the Machalgho dam in Paktia, although work on the project, under the supervision of an Afghan ministry, has been delayed.
USAID will continue to work in Afghanistan after the Paktia PRT closes, but projects will be run from Kabul and carried out by charities or local people, said Justin Gordon, USAID senior field program officer for Paktia province.
He said Afghan officials were generally in a position to take more development responsibility but the situation varied.
(Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Ron Popeski)