The Army's $10M Afghan Flop

Surge of American Civilians Is Needed

Not long after the patrol through the market, Torelli sits near the end of a long table in the governor's house. The governor is next to him and 50 or so of Zabul's "line directors" fill the table -- the Zabul representatives of the national ministries, responsible to officials in Kabul rather than to the governor himself.

After the meeting Torelli pointed out how few of them were literate and how little experience they had. One of the U.S.'s longest-term projects is to build more capacity inside the government. That, Torelli says, will take generations.

"Zabul has a scarcity of education," Gov. Mohammed Ashraf Nasseri said in an interview following the meeting. "It has a lack of human and professional resources, and it is one of the reasons that keeps Zabul behind in the development process."

Capacity problems, however, also extend to the American effort as well. When Torelli arrived, he said, only one person in his 100 member team had any experience in Afghanistan in his or her field. Only three engineers live on the base and there is only one representative from the main U.S. government departments contributing to the reconstruction.

The lack of resources, he says, "makes it hard to do significant, consistent work."

As part of the new U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, the U.S. promises a "civilian surge" to fill these Provincial Reconstruction Teams with more experts. In Zabul that surge may be as few as 12 people, Torelli says.

He has requested a full agriculture team of 100 people, but isn't sure whether they'll arrive.

The agriculture team may be the most important effort to the U.S.' long term development of Zabul and the rest of Afghanistan.

Eighty percent of "fighting-age males" in Afghanistan are small scale farmers. In Zabul, because of a lack of storage, water, and transportation, the economy is based almost entirely on subsistence agriculture.

Improving productivity and market access will be one of the main ways the U.S. fights the massive poppy market, which is helping fuel the insurgency. And providing more agriculture jobs will help defeat the Taliban, most of whose fighters enlisted to gain income rather than fulfill religious inspirations.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently announced the U.S. was increasing its agriculture assistance funding from tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions and reducing efforts to eradicate poppy.

"In my experience of 40-plus years… this was the single most wasteful, most ineffective program that I had ever seen," Holbrooke recently told the Washington Post, speaking of the poppy eradication efforts. "It wasn't just a waste of money… This was actually a benefit to the enemy. We were recruiting Taliban with our tax dollars" by angering farmers when the U.S. destroyed their poppy crops.

Instead, money will be pumped into "alternative livlihoods" and similar programs that promote agriculture jobs.

Zabul Favorite Target of Taliban Insurgents

That will begin in the main population centers. In Zabul, those are centered around Highway 1, the 2003 USAID project that linked Kabul to Kandahar with a single two-lane highway. It was extremely popular, but the U.S. did not realize how difficult it would be to defend. In Zabul, it has become the most popular target of insurgents.

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