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Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.

 

An oasis of relative calm in a sea of violence

Quick funding, tactical targeting of U.S. projects reaping rewards

''Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 23 Jun 06

 

QALAT, AFGHANISTAN — With its mud walls and rock-strewn roads, Qalat resembles any other provincial capital in Afghanistan. On a recent afternoon, however, with a casual walk down the street, governor Del Bar Jan Arman showed why military planners consider Zabul province a rare success amid the upheaval in Afghanistan's south.

 

Without missing a word or bothering to check for traffic, Mr. Arman stepped past the barbed wire and high walls surrounding a U.S. military base and sauntered along a quiet street toward his official residence. The two police officers trailing along behind his entourage seemed bored, their Kalashnikov rifles hanging loosely at their sides.

 

Governors of neighbouring provinces usually travel in armoured convoys or helicopters, and some have been targeted by suicide bombers. But Mr. Arman's aides say he regularly makes excursions on foot.

 

"When I first arrived, we didn't have much control over some districts," Mr. Arman said, referring to his appointment in early 2005. "People told me: 'The Taliban is too strong. Stay inside your offices.' " He chuckled at the memory. "Now, we are a success."

 

Success is a modest thing in this blighted region. Zabul remains plagued by insurgents and the country's worst poverty. But military planners are trying hard to understand this province's transformation during the past two years from a Taliban stronghold into an oasis of relative calm, and their search for answers has produced results that challenge the Canadian way of thinking about how to rebuild a dangerous country.

 

"This is held up as an exemplar province in regional command south and much of Afghanistan," a senior official said.

 

The military assessment matches the impressions of local Afghans.

 

During a three-day visit this week to Qalat, 390 kilometres southwest of Kabul, every Afghan interviewed -- from carpet weavers to the city's mayor -- agreed that Zabul has somehow weathered the rising insurgency with relatively few scars. They pointed to dozens of new U.S.-funded projects across the province, and expressed hope that conditions would keep getting better.

 

"This place has a future," said Ehsanullah Ahmadi, 33, a radio announcer who usually goes by his on-air nickname Esan Esan. "I couldn't say that last year."

 

This accomplishment is more remarkable given the fact that, two years ago, Zabul was considered Taliban country. When U.S. troops started a large-scale push into the province's northern areas in 2004, some residents had been isolated from government influence for so long that they reportedly mistook the American soldiers for Russians. They lived in villages where the Taliban had been investing in infrastructure such as bakeries to feed their insurgent army, and a shadow government had emerged with Taliban holding village meetings to solve municipal issues.

 

Now, Mr. Arman says his government has control of nearly every district in the province. As a measure of how seriously the coalition treats the province's turnaround, he says, Canadian Brigadier-General David Fraser listened at length to his suggestions during a meeting last month. Gen. Fraser commands foreign troops in Zabul as well as Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan, three of the most volatile provinces. One of the most urgent pieces of advice he heard was to deliver civic improvements quickly.

 

"I get lists of projects from villagers and I give them to the coalition, and they do it right away," Mr. Arman said. "This is important. If you promise, you should do it. Otherwise, you cannot go a second time to that village."

 

The U.S. reconstruction team in Qalat says it has spent $18- or $19-million (U.S.) during the past two years in an ambitious push to build roads, wells, schools, bridges and a dizzying array of other projects.

 

Most of the work has relied on a funding mechanism called the Commander's Emergency Relief Program. CERP gives U.S. military commanders an advantage that Canadian and British officers lack: The ability to directly fund whatever projects they choose, often very quickly.

 

Any project less than $25,000 (U.S.) can win instant approval from Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin McGlaughlin, commander of the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Qalat. Money for a new school -- $80,000 or $90,000 (U.S.) -- can get okayed within a week or two.

 

Six-figure investments require a signoff from U.S. military leaders at Bagram airfield, but permission usually arrives within weeks.

 

"You see this building?" Col. McGlaughlin asked, bounding with typical energy through the half-finished hallways of a government office on the outskirts of Qalat. "I can get something like this done in six to eight months."

 

Critics say this process makes the American PRT commander into a temporary king, leaving the reconstruction process vulnerable to the commander's foibles and his eventual absence when his rotation finishes. The CERP projects also tend to circumvent restrictions, such as building codes, which would be mandatory for civilian-funded projects.

 

Col. McGlaughlin emphasizes that he's a B-52 pilot by profession and not qualified to plan a city. But that's exactly what he's doing, he acknowledges, as he personally directs construction of a new neighbourhood in Qalat. It's not a flawless process: On a plateau above the city, a swath of scrubland recently cleared for an airport runway runs straight through a road that's also under construction, forcing Col. McGlaughlin to rethink the road's route.

 

But in a province where rapid investments can undermine the Taliban and improve security, these quibbles are minor, he said.

 

"I'm hands-on because I want to get stuff done," the U.S. commander said.

 

The Americans also say they're not shy about using their money tactically, giving a project to a local strongman to help his reputation, or building something beside a hot zone to make the Taliban's supporters jealous of the rewards showered on their peaceful neighbours.

 

The U.S. emphasis on road building is partly intended to allow military deployment more quickly to any corner of the province, said Major Martin Regan, the PRT's second in command.

 

"The Romans had it right 2,000 years ago," Major Regan said. "Roads are how you connect the empire." The American approach also suits Afghan culture, he added.

 

When Canadian and British commanders sit down for meetings with Afghans, they must refer funding requests to their civilian counterparts at the Canadian International Development Agency or Britain's Department for International Development.

 

Allowing U.S. commanders to help directly fits the Afghan notion that the man with the guns should also be the man with the money, he said.

 

"It makes sense to them," Major Regan said.

 

But it's exactly that system of strongmen than Canada does not want to support with its development program, Michael Callan, the CIDA representative for Kandahar, said in a recent interview.

 

"We could buy a temporary peace," Mr. Callan said. "But that would be based on bribery, and supporting a Mafia-like state. The second you walk away and the funds stop flowing, everything falls apart."

 

CIDA has a $5-million initial budget for the PRT in Kandahar, but little money has been spent since Canada took over the PRT last year. Only one major PRT project has begun, in the Shah Wali Kot district, using Canada's Confidence in Government model. CIG is intended to strengthen existing government structures instead of creating a parallel system, Mr. Callan said, so CIDA asks the provincial governor to choose districts that need help.

 

Then district leaders are asked to draw up lists of their neediest villages, and the villagers hold meetings where they try to reach consensus on the project they need.

 

"The PRT could go around this whole process," Mr. Callan said.

 

"Instead of consulting, we could build things immediately. But that's charity, instead of supporting institutions." In Qalat, Mayor Jenat Gul says the formula is more simple.

 

"We asked people what they need as we gave it to them," Mr. Gul said.

 

"Now we have peace."


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