After three weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I find it easier to be hopeful about the latter.
Across the board, the Afghans I met, from government officials to elders to students, did not want a return of harsh Taliban rule. But they were frustrated with their government’s failure to provide security and jobs or to lessen corruption. Polls bear out what I heard. They indicate that Taliban gains grow out of intimidation and the Taliban’s ability to provide rough governance where the government fails to deliver.
Yet, I also met highly capable Afghan ministers and provincial officials with good ideas about how to deal more effectively with the Taliban beyond the addition of U.S. forces.
One common theme: More foreign aid should be channeled directly to the Afghan people rather than through international contractors who take the bulk of every dollar. And the aid should be delivered in ways that create jobs and build the capacity of Afghans to help themselves.
Halim Fidai, the energetic 38-year-old governor of strategic Wardak province near Kabul, is full of ideas for change. An English speaker and former journalist with extensive experience working with nongovernmental organizations, he notes the progress in Wardak since a year ago.
In July, the Taliban was blocking major highways that cross Wardak and had virtually shut down the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr; now the main roads to Kabul are safe and markets and offices are open.
What changed? Fidai lists several key factors as district elders in turbans who are waiting to see him sit on sofas along the walls and sip tea. Those factors: an infusion of 1,500 new U.S. troops, more checkpoints on roads, and the beginnings of a new program of auxiliary police, called the Afghan Public Protection Program, or the “Guardians,” who now patrol in a couple of districts and watch out for intruders.
Fidai says he also has made extensive efforts to engage with the locals and consult with village elders and religious scholars so the population does not feel abandoned. But, as governor, he has pitifully few financial resources to create jobs.
And he worries that the gains reaped from pushing back the Taliban will be lost if promised international aid does not arrive soon. “Many promises were given” to locals, he says, in return for volunteering their sons for the Guardians; aid projects to repair mosques and build roads are in the pipeline but have yet to materialize. Locals are losing confidence in those pledges and in the provincial government’s ability to deliver.
“The opportunity is there, but the United States still sticks with a highly bureaucratic approach” to delivering aid, Fidai says. “The really frustrating thing is that the international community doesn’t utilize the opportunities. The Wardak example could be used to win over the whole country.”
Fidai would like to see international aid coordinated more closely with provincial and district officials on the ground.
The need for better coordination of U.S. and other foreign aid with locals was also stressed by Afghanistan’s talented minister for reconstruction and rural development, Mohammad Ehsan Zia. His ministry runs the National Solidarity Program, which funnels foreign grants directly to thousands of locally elected community development councils.
Zia says that foreign aid channeled through layers of international contractors leads to enormous waste. He cites huge percentages being siphoned off for high salaries and travel, overhead costs like pricey headquarters, and security expenses to protect foreign experts.
He urged, instead, that aid be delivered more directly to Afghans. He’d like to see some U.S. aid to go directly through the community councils, an idea that U.S. officials are examining. He says that if locals determine which aid projects are needed and help build them, the Taliban will think twice about destroying them. “Of the 100 to 200 schools the Taliban has burned,” he says, “only one was built by (community councils), and that one was rebuilt.”
And he’d like U.S. technical experts to back up experts in Afghan ministries, rather than run big projects solo. “Help Afghans stand on their own feet,” he urges. Amen.
Another big point: Zia, like Fidai, stresses speed of aid delivery. The gains made by clearing the Taliban can be lost if the locals don’t immediately see the economic benefits of sticking with the government.
“Development should immediately reach an area after it has been cleared” of Taliban, he says. “If you start eight months later, forget it.
“If we make aid subject to aid bureaucracies, Afghan and international, it won’t work,” Zia argues. “The rule of the game is quick delivery. If you deliver quickly, you get trust. Otherwise you can’t build relationships.”
The message from Fidai and Zia is clear: Help the locals help themselves, and do it faster. Heeding their advice is crucial to preventing the Taliban from reversing gains made by U.S. and Afghan troops.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is:

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