Afghans frustrated in bid to remake Taliban-free towns

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Nawa, Afghanistan — Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor for this region of Helmand Province, was incensed.

An employee from the agricultural ministry of the provincial government refuses to come to Nawa unless he is assured a desk and a telephone at the district headquarters, where desks and phones are in short supply.

Improving the crop yield and persuading the farmers to plant wheat rather than the poppies that produce heroin are key points in the U.S.- NATO coalition’s plans to upgrade the standard of living in this farmbelt in southern Afghanistan.

But for months, Manaf has been unable to get the support he wants from the provincial government.

“I don’t know what to do,” Manaf complained to a gathering of U.S. and British civilian aid workers.

The story of the agricultural employee and the desk and phone is not unusual. Although there have been improvements recently, the relationship between the district government and the provincial government in Lashka-Gar is tenuous.

The improvements in Nawa since the Marines chased the Taliban from control last summer are noticeable and significant: the bazaar reopened, a clinic established, a school refurbished and opened, a community council formed, irrigation canals cleaned, and Afghan police patrolling the streets and back roads.

Just hours after the Marines and Afghan army began an offensive to drive the Taliban from the community of Marja, a Marine officer told several hundred Afghan men that the goal is to provide the people of Marja with the same peace and prosperity now being enjoyed in Nawa.

But rifts between the locals and the provincial government cover nearly all services and are hampering plans to make Nawa into a showpiece of the permanent improvements that can occur when the Taliban are no longer in charge.

“What we have to do is improve all these ministries,” said Ian Purves, part of the multinational Provincial Reconstruction Team assigned to Nawa.

At a Saturday shura at a school being refurbished, Manaf pleaded with residents not to become disenchanted with his district government and switch allegiance to the Taliban. “What has the Taliban ever done for you?” he said. “Nothing. They burned this school.”

The Afghan government, prodded by U.S. and British governments, has a plan for Marja, where Marines and Afghan soldiers are fighting to rest control from the Taliban, designed to eliminate some of the frustration and discontent that comes from the slow, incremental pace seen in Nawa.

Called the District Development Plan, or “government in a box,” it calls for a local government structure to be established as soon as the fighting stops, with strong and permanent links to the provincial government, which largely controls the money.

“The government has realized they need to get a governmental presence more quickly in order to deliver basic services,” said Purves.

The same strategy is being used in the Nad-e-Ali area, where British and Afghan forces are on an offensive similar to that in nearby Marja. Officials have announced that 2,000 people have already registered for a “work for cash” program, two schools have reopened, and nearly a thousand residents have received aid.

Given the high profile of the push into Marja, the post-combat phase of establishing a government has taken on added significance, officials concede. Slowness, they said, could undercut attempts to win the confidence of Marja residents and could frustrate impatient outsiders, like the U.S. government.

The same concern has been expressed by those working in Nawa.

In his final report to his superiors, Marine Capt. Frank “Gus” Biggio, the Washington lawyer and Marine reservist who headed a civil-affairs squad in Nawa until last December, warned that “one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s future is not so much the drug trade, Taliban influence or corruption at the higher levels of government but rather the patience and persistence of her foreign partners.”

In a reference to Nawa that might also apply to Marja, Biggio noted: “There are daunting challenges ahead in this country.”