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U.S., Taliban compete to help Afghan towns

Building up local government in Afghanistan is key to improving people's lives and winning their support against the Taliban, but it's also a big challenge .
Afghan Grassroots Government
Massoud Balouch, the governor of a district in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, leads children to school through the town of Khan Neshin on Dec. 12. The Marines and U.S. officials in Khan Neshin are trying to bypass corruption and inefficiency by working directly through Balouch. Sebastian Abbot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The governor of this remote district in southern Afghanistan has employees he can't afford to pay, a school he struggles to staff with teachers, a clinic where doctors are scarce and a police force of mostly illiterate farmers.

That's actually progress in an impoverished area that had no school, doctor, police or even a governor before U.S. Marines arrived about six months ago.

Building up local government is key to improving people's lives and winning their support against the Taliban. The experience in Rig district in Helmand province, a crossroads for Taliban fighters entering from nearby Pakistan, highlights just how difficult that challenge can be.

"Right now it is a race between us and the Taliban," said Lt. Col. Richard Crevier, whose battalion is posted in a 200-year-old mud fort in Khan Neshin.

The dusty district town is typical of many areas of Afghanistan that have little history of strong government presence. Where the state's influence is felt, it's often not for the better. Many officials use their positions to enrich themselves rather than deliver basic services.

The Taliban have capitalized on people's grievances by setting up shadow governments in many parts of Afghanistan's volatile south that in some ways function more efficiently than the real thing, although they are based on the group's strict interpretation of Islam.

Former pharmacist steps in
The Marines and civilian development officials in Khan Neshin are trying to bypass the corruption and inefficiency at higher levels of government by working directly through the district governor, Massoud Balouch, a 27-year-old former pharmacist who sacrificed a comfortable life in the provincial capital to run one of Afghanistan's impoverished areas.

"If there were more people like me, Afghanistan would build itself faster," said Balouch.

But coalition officials have discovered that even a capable and well-intentioned local leader can get hamstrung by corruption at higher levels of government, a shortage of educated Afghans and the threat that the Taliban will target those who cooperate with the development effort.

In a country where the literacy rate is only about 30 percent, Balouch has had trouble recruiting competent staff willing to work in a remote district of only about 20,000 people for practically nothing.

It's a problem the U.N. says also plagues provincial governments.

"We train 1,700 people, then ask them to go back to their provinces to work," said the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide. "And they say, 'For $60, $70, $80 dollars a month? Why should we?'"

Helmand's provincial government appointed senior staff for Balouch, but he said they were corrupt. Instead, he recruited people he knew earlier this month to serve in a handful of administrative positions. He also brought a new doctor with him.

Foreign aid pays salaries
But he receives so little money from the provincial government that he relies on international aid to pay most of their salaries and the district's budget, which is unsustainable in the long-run.

"It is a common problem in Afghanistan to fail to get money from the government because of corruption," said Balouch.

Without foreign aid to pay salaries, the governor said, his staff "would leave, and I wouldn't want them to stay because they would fall into corruption."

Convincing educated and well-trained people to come work in Khan Neshin is only half the battle. Getting them to stay has proven just as difficult.

The first two doctors the governor brought with him in August and September left after 24 hours because they were scared of the lingering Taliban threat, said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Dwayne Bell, a U.S. Navy medic working with the Marines in Khan Neshin.

Locals had been relying on a veterinarian with close links to the Taliban as the only medical professional before the Marines arrived in July.

There had also been no school for several years until the coalition came. But there are only two teachers, and one failed to return from vacation recently, leaving the second — a former maintenance worker — to teach more than 100 kids.

Despite the setbacks, many residents say they appreciate the coalition's efforts — at least when asked in the presence of several heavily armed Marines from the 4th Marine Division, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

"Since the Marines came here it's good because they cleaned out our irrigation canals and we have a school and a clinic," said Fathi Mohamed, a 60 year-old farmer.

But serious challenges remain.

Recently, the district received a new batch of police after more than half of the previous officers failed a drug test. The new recruits are mostly young farmers who have no formal training and can't read or write.

The district also lacks a formal court system and must send suspects to the provincial capital by military helicopter within 72 hours of arresting them, a logistical nightmare in a place where flights are regularly canceled because of weather or maintenance.

Taliban's fast justice appreciated
The lack of effective justice in Afghanistan's rural areas is one of the key grievances the Taliban have seized upon to increase their support. The Taliban often hand out verdicts in hours, compared to months or years in the country's often corrupt and inefficient court system.

Coalition officials said they are relying on trust in the district governor to help maintain local backing.

"If trust doesn't exist, plus you have the problems with getting a doctor, a teacher, that would just snowball into the belief that you can't deliver these things," said Maj. Jeremy Hoffman, the chief information officer for the Marine battalion in Khan Neshin.

But there are even questions about how long the governor will remain in his post.

Balouch currently spends only about half of each month in Khan Neshin and said he hoped to wrap up his work in about 30 days and leave the task of governing to his staff.

The coalition is counting on him to stay.

"He wants to see the job done ... and I can state that it won't be done in a month," said Hoffman.