Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan: "This is an Afghan process," Lt. Col. Gordon Phil lips began, "and I am here to make sure it goes smoothly. But the decisions are not mine. They are yours." A dozen members of this province's Provincial Council or Shura listened carefully as the interpreter translated into their native Pashto.
Phillips, the commander of the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, continued: "Don't think about money. Think about what you will need five years from now, about your children, and your grandchildren. I have other money, emergency money, which I can and will use if appropriate. Think about what Nangarhar needs."
For the first time in Afghan history, Afghans are about to set spending priorities for their localities, rather than accepting the crumbs that a king, warlord, or Kabul-appointed governor condescends to allow them. This process of writing Provincial Development Plans, which Lt. Col. Phillips described to the council members, has been going on throughout Afghanistan this July and August, and it promises to correct some of the more egregious failures of American aid here. At the least, it will put to rest the frequent charges--some warranted, some not--that we are giving the Afghans what we think they need rather than what they think they need, and listening to bureaucrats in Kabul rather than the people who will actually use the roads, bridges, dams, and irrigation channels being built.
"Shifting the emphasis to the provinces would help to redress the heavily skewed development expenditure that favors the urban areas and their vocal elite," says NATO ambassador to Afghanistan Daan Everts, who helped Kosovo get back on its feet.
Understanding the nitty-gritty of Afghan government is important to correct the cartoonish panorama of warlords, Taliban, and virtuous president that underlies the average American's picture of Afghanistan--a picture that is seriously misleading.
In Nangarhar, each of the 22 subdistricts is holding three days of community meetings in which local people set a list of development priorities. Phillips mentioned one meeting, in Kama district, that was attended by 71 villagers (males only, in this conservative area). The priorities of each district will be taken up to the provincial level and hashed out into provincial priorities by mid-August. Throughout the process, villagers and provincial officials are being mentored by development organizations working as contractors for the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
The Provincial Councils were elected in the fall of 2005, when Afghanistan had its first parliamentary elections, but it was only this spring that the councils began to meet regularly to assess local needs. The impetus came from the Army National Guard head, General Clyde A. Vaughn, who recognized that while the Provincial Councils have no formal budgetary or decision-making process, they are the closest thing to elected local officials that Afghanistan has.
Afghanistan has a poorly designed constitution, a chronic shortage of funds, and a lack of competent, honest officials. Mayoral and district elections are mandated in the constitution, but there has been no money to hold them; governors are appointed by the president, who can remove them more or less at will. (One respected governor, Abdul Sattar Murad of Kapisa, was removed from office three days after criticizing President Hamid Karzai in an interview with Newsweek.) So along with the members of parliament, Provincial Council members are the only officials who can make Afghans' local needs heard in the capital and beyond.
The council system itself is imperfect; like members of parliament, council members are elected province-wide, not in districts. Some districts end up with no representatives (this is true of 3 of Nangarhar's 22 districts), while other, more populous or prosperous districts with powerful and cohesive tribes end up with several (at least 4 Nangarhar districts are double-dipping this way). What's worse, since two-thirds of the members of the upper house of Afghanistan's parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, are elected by the Provincial Councils, the unfairness can be duplicated or magnified at the national level. Even so, given Afghanistan's fragile civil society and poorly engineered constitution, the councils are one of our best hopes.
So far, USAID has largely ignored the Provincial Councils--even though it indirectly fosters them, funding the National Democratic Institute, which is training 15 councils. This may help explain the many complaints from Afghans about top-down development projects, and also to some degree the reality of wasted money and ill-conceived ventures. (Of course, some Afghans who complain about aid projects have misguided ideas of their own about how to spend and plan.) Now, the fact that PRTs include representatives of USAID, USDA, and the State Department is pulling USAID into engagement with the councils. Danny Hall, the State Department's representative in Nangarhar, participated in the Jalalabad PRT meeting, as his counterparts are doing across Afghanistan. And he, along with Phillips, frankly acknowledged that mistakes have been made and money wasted in projects built by various organizations in this province in the past.
The dollar stakes are high in Eastern Afghanistan, where large increases in American aid are in motion. In Nangarhar alone, USAID is disbursing $83 million in 2007, after spending $79 million of American taxpayers' money from 2002 to 2006. If Nangarhar's population (not known with certainty) is 1.5 million, this amounts to around $125 per adult.
The day before the meeting with Lt. Col. Phillips, nine members of the Provincial Council met privately with me, voicing their complaints about past American projects in Nangarhar. Council member Mohammed Zahel, an outspoken, smooth-shaven medical doctor, complained, "In Shirzad District there is an 11-kilometer road from Gandamak to Kootikhel funded by USAID. The contract is for $950,000. When it rains, the sand washes away (between the cobblestones of the road) leaving only stones. It is bumpy."
Danny Hall explained to me later that sometimes the fault is with the local communities or district and provincial governments who do not maintain the cobblestone roads according to instructions. Phillips, meanwhile, says that his goal is to put a blacktop road between Nangarhar's main artery and each of the district centers. He vows that boondoggles won't happen on his watch. Since he arrived in late March, he says he's been holding contractors responsible for their work and making regular inspections, including inspections by village elders of projects in their area.
From what I saw here and in other provinces, the American military is doing an increasingly good job of matching American know-how with local needs to deliver aid more effectively. Later this year, Phillips's team of six Army civil affairs specialists and three Air Force engineers will be joined by an entire new, separate PRT staffed by reservists who are farmers and ranchers in civilian life. This team will be devoted to aiding agriculture in Nangarhar's rich river valley farmland. Ground and aerial surveys of the province are under way to assess the agricultural potential.
As elsewhere in Afghanistan, American efforts are starting from the ground up. Though Nangarhar already produces fruits and vegetables in abundance and has plenty of river water, it has few dams. Irrigation channels are mud, so water evaporates or seeps into the soil before reaching its destination. Microhydro plants can use river water to supply the power needs of whole villages--if electric wires and poles are put up by someone with experience and money. (Some earlier projects plunked microhydros down without wiring.) Currently crops can be taken to market in Kabul quickly from Jalalabad, just 3 hours away over a smooth blacktop road--but cold storage in Jalalabad is insufficient to make sure produce doesn't rot in the 120-degree heat awaiting transportation, and the districts need blacktop roads to get their produce from rural areas to Jalalabad. This is part of what the new agricultural PRT aims to work on.
One problem the United States can do little about immediately is that perhaps a third of Nangarhar's people are landless, working as sharecroppers for a 30-50 percent share of what they grow. (Some never had land; others are returning refugees from Pakistan whose land has been lost; this percentage seems high compared with other provinces I've visited.) Most landholders own uneconomically tiny parcels. The average holding is around half a hectare, the governor's spokesman told me, or 1.25 acres; a "rich" farmer is one with 5 to 10 acres. Now that farmers are using tractors and farming is less labor-intensive, the problem of rural unemployment has increased.
The members of the Nangarhar Provincial Council have signed on for the often thankless task of addressing these formidable problems. To Western eyes they might not look impressive. Nearly all the men are bearded and in traditional clothing. Only the chairman wore a Western suit, and only two men had closed shoes. Just a few spoke some English. But by local standards it is a well-educated group, including five medical doctors and a teacher. There are three women--two of the doctors and the teacher--as the national quotas mandate, and for Nangarhar, where women are hardly seen on the street even in burqas, they are screamingly progressive in filmy pastel headscarves.
Watching these men and women voice their area's concerns, it was impossible not to be moved by their earnestness, and their very new experience of speaking to people who listen to them. Yes, they are politicians, and some are naive; one stated that in the United States people never have to worry about money when deciding what projects they want for their neighborhoods.
"Imagine the United States three years into its Constitution," Lt. Col. Phillips commented later. But seeing how these and other ordinary Afghans are starting to shape their future goes some way to bringing an often hazy, faraway land into sharper focus.