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Capt. Jeffrey Hembree talks to workers at an irrigation work site in Afghanistan’s southern Khowst province.
Capt. Jeffrey Hembree talks to workers at an irrigation work site in Afghanistan’s southern Khowst province. (Anita Powell / S&S)

KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — A rash of new American-funded projects has brought new life to Afghanistan’s southern Khowst province, but military officials say the larger challenge is getting Afghans to take the lead in rebuilding their own country.

Since October, U.S. Army civil affairs units have started 27 projects in Khowst province — mostly roads, bridges and mosque repairs — totaling $2.5 million. Local students attend school in tents instead of outdoors, village crops are protected by flood walls, and dilapidated mosques have been given new life.

But that progress, more than four years after the American invasion of Afghanistan, is incremental and mostly funded by American Army funds and donations from corporations. And, American and local officials say, it will be years — even decades — before the Afghan government will be able to foot any part of the bill.

“We need the help of the coalition forces and donor countries for 15 more years,” said Sharif Zadran, director of education for Khowst province. “Because of security, and because of political problems, we need coalition forces for a while.”

Local officials say the Afghan government doesn’t have the income to rebuild itself, although the government has taken an active role in managing and overseeing American-funded projects.

“It’s because of these guys,” said Abdul Mar Khan, director of irrigation for Khowst province, gesturing toward civil affairs officer Capt. Jeffrey Hembree, “that we’re on our feet, we’re working for the people.”

Before civil affairs teams began working with his ministry nine months ago, “nothing was going on in this department,” he said. “Personnel were just coming by and hanging around. There was nothing.”

Since then, he said, although American involvement in the projects is common knowledge, locals have begun to see the projects as emblematic of the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we are showing the people that their government is working for them,” Khan said.

Civil affairs officials with the newly arrived 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y., said that they’ve seen buy-in from Afghan officials and locals, albeit of a different sort.

“It’s sweat equity,” said Maj. Stewart Moon, chief of civil-military operations of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade. “They’re buying in on the upkeep.”

He disputed comparisons to reconstruction in Iraq, where reconstruction projects have moved at a faster pace and where the Iraqi government has invested financially in some of the reconstruction.

“In Iraq, they have an economic infrastructure that’s viable right now,” he said. “The biggest thing about Afghanistan versus Iraq is that Iraq has seen an industrial revolution. Afghanistan has not.”

Civil affairs officials were unable to offer an estimate on how long it would take to flesh out Afghanistan’s basic infrastructure. One of the bigger hurdles: overcoming Afghan expectations that someone else will provide for their needs.

“Like anything, it will take time,” Moon said. “You have 25 years of destruction, of war. And the whole time that was going on, some (nongovernment organizations), some governments were putting in to keep them alive. You have two generations that have been living on that. It will take time to get over that.”

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