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Taliban is just one of many challenges faced by Afghan towns

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 those items are in short supply.

Improving crop yields and persuading 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 farm belt 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 told a gathering of U.S. and British civilian aid workers.

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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 Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, is tenuous.

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

This month, just hours after coalition troops and the Afghan army began an offensive to drive the Taliban from the nearby community of Marja, a U.S. 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, about 10 miles away.

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

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“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, or tribal meeting, 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 the United States and Britain, has a plan for Marja, designed to eliminate any frustration and discontent like that seen in Nawa.

Dubbed 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,” Purves said.

The same strategy is being used in Nad Ali, the district surrounding Marja, where British and Afghan forces are on an offensive similar to that in Marja.

Officials have announced that 2,000 people have registered to take part in a “work for cash” program, two schools have reopened, and nearly 1,000 residents have received aid.

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Given the high profile of the push into Marja, the post-combat phase of establishing a government has taken on added significance, officials said. Delays could undercut attempts to win the confidence of residents and frustrate foreign partners such as 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, a Washington lawyer and reservist who headed a civil affairs squad in Nawa until 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 said, “There are daunting challenges ahead in this country.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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