FARAH, Afghanistan — The Afghan government never had much to spend on new roads and schools. But for much of the war’s nearly 11-year run, the U.S.-led coalition has stood by, checkbook in hand, ready to fund almost anything that might bring security and stability to the battle-scarred nation.
In Farah, a scorching, windswept province bordering Iran, those days are over.
To prepare the local government for life after the coalition, the American reconstruction team that controls the coalition’s development purse is forcing Afghan officials to go through the motions of requesting funding from their own government, even if the U.S. ends up paying the bill.
The policy compels Afghans to use government processes that, after more than a decade of foreign aid, are still unfamiliar to many. While American officials said they’ve seen improvements since the policy went into effect this spring, coalition funding for new development has essentially ground to a halt.
“Nothing has actually gone through that process yet,” said Cmdr. Tom Sheppard, 40, the Navy SEAL who commands the provincial reconstruction team, or PRT.
Though most provincial-level officials are accustomed to working with their counterparts in Kabul, which provides funding for projects as they are approved by the central government, village- and district-level officials who are supposed to do the initial work of deciding what the province needs in order to inform Kabul’s decisions are struggling.
In Pusht-e Rod, a district just outside the provincial capital, the subgovernor blames the dysfunction on the coalition’s termination of two programs that gave elders an incentive to lobby for development aid.
First to go was a U.S. Agency for International Development program that paid elders to attend district-level development meetings.
Capt. Erik Hickly, 37, a civil affairs officer in the PRT’s civil-military operations center, said the program’s demise was, in his mind, “a good thing.”
Paying people to take an interest in their community “is the wrong way to do it,” said the Army reservist from Tacoma, Wash. “They need to take that interest. They need to take that burden upon themselves because they want to see improvement.”
The coalition also stopped providing funds for food at the development meetings. Such meals are expected in Afghan culture, according to coalition officials, who said the expectation is not unreasonable.
That doesn’t mean the coalition is going to pay for them.
“Not that we can’t afford to do it, but in the long term, what happens when the PRT disappears?” Hickly said.
According to Sheppard, the provincial government has set money aside to pay for the food for Farah’s 10 districts. The problem has been getting district-level officials to request the cash from the provincial government — and to understand that the money will come if they request it.
A week after Sheppard explained the process to Pusht-e Rod’s subgovernor, Ghawsudin, the subgovernor raised the issue again with Chris Guertsen, a USAID field program officer from Falls Church, Va. Before the meeting was over, Ghawsudin asked Guertsen to give him a budget, which would keep him from having to ask the provincial government for help.
“I haven’t talked to the new governor,” Ghawsudin told Guertsen through an interpreter. “Whenever I am coming to you, you solve our problems right away.”
Guertsen deflected, explaining again how to request funds from the provincial government.
“Transition is tough in a lot of ways, and I personally think there’s a lot more work that could be done that’s becoming more difficult because we’re drawing down,” Guertsen, 29, said. But “the government is going to have to stand on its own at some point.”
It’s not there yet.
Sheppard raised Farah’s prison, a U.S.-funded facility built with the understanding that Afghans would operate and maintain it, as an example of what years of coalition pampering has led to.
Less than a year after accepting responsibility for the prison, the warden is faced with a mess largely of his own making.
“The septic system is flowing out all over the place,” said Sheppard, of Annapolis, Md.
That is the type of problem that Afghan authorities have to learn to solve on their own, preferably through official channels, according to Sheppard.
Yet in the three months since the issue bubbled up, the warden has done nothing to give Sheppard hope that he’s willing to operate according to Afghan rules.
Instead, the warden has repeatedly pleaded with the Americans to step in. After repeated denials, the warden asked the Italians, who command coalition operations in western Afghanistan, to help. They, too, turned him down.
In between, Afghanistan’s interior minister, who oversees the country’s police and prisons, visited Farah. According to Sheppard, the warden, a lieutenant colonel, lobbied the minister to request the Americans fix the septic system.
Nothing, though, is broken. According to various coalition officers, the warden has refused to limit prisoners’ water usage and neglected to file an official request to fund sewage removal.
After hearing both sides, the minister sided with the Americans, ordering the warden to submit the necessary paperwork through his ministry.
That was a month ago, Sheppard said. The paperwork was never filed. “They have not done anything.”
The mess sparked serious health concerns, according to Sheppard, but his unit has no intention of intervening and has asked other organizations to adopt the same line.
“It is a total failure if someone comes in there and fixes it for them,” Sheppard said. “If someone fixes it, what’s going to happen with operations and maintenance for it? Someone is still going to have to do that, and they haven’t budgeted for it. And every time you take care of a problem for them it reaffirms that, ‘Hey, someone’s going to take care of it for us.’ ”
The day is fast approaching when all those lifelines will vanish.
At the same time, though, Sheppard said Western forces are partly to blame for stoking the belief that the coalition would always ride to the rescue. For years, the coalition funded many projects and programs, without involving higher levels of the Afghan government, and took the lead in solving a slew of problems, obviating the need for Afghan officials to seek aid from their government.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly criticized the provincial reconstruction teams for that approach, blaming them for undermining his government’s effectiveness and authority — a characterization Sheppard and others said is not without merit.
“They are accustomed to not getting what they need from the Afghan government and getting what they need from the coalition,” said Nancy Abella, a State Department representative who works on the PRT’s staff.
Because that has been the case for years, “they just assume that they can’t get it from their government,” she said.