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Nov 20, 2009

US civilian experts train for the real Afghanistan

, Nov 20 (Reuters) – They arrive at the meeting by U.S. military helicopter, politely accept a cup of tea and haggle over a U.S.-funded water project gone awry.

This is Afghanistan — or at least a simulation at a tatty complex in the Indiana woods to prepare hundreds of agriculture specialists, lawyers, economists and other civilian experts for the real thing.

Sending more American civilians to Afghanistan is part of President Barack Obama’s strategy review as he seeks to turn around the eight-year war and improve the performance of the Karzai government while reining in a culture of corruption.

The State Department aims to have 974 civilians in Afghanistan by the end of the year, up from 320 in January, but that is still a small number for a country so shattered by war. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has asked for at least 300 more.

For 57-year-old Kathy Gunderman, going to Afghanistan is almost a calling and she hopes her decades of agricultural skills will help boost crop yields in a country where she says too many children die from hunger-related disease.

Having grown up poor in Appalachia, Gunderman feels empathy with those struggling in Afghanistan.

"I am more sure of this than I have been about anything else in my life," she says.

Gunderman and 35 others attended the training course this week at the Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations.

The former mental institution southeast of Indianapolis was transformed by the National Guard into a mock urban center in Afghanistan where civilian experts role-play their new jobs and learn how to work with the U.S. military in a war zone.

In one scruffy meeting room, a picture of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was inaugurated for another term on Thursday, is pasted on the wall. Men in Afghan clothing, toying with beads, sit on mismatched furniture and harangue aid workers over a project that divided a community.

The goal is to be as authentic as possible. The mustachioed man posing as a provincial governor is a former Afghan diplomat and the actor playing a police chief once had that job too.

Corruption is a major theme of the training.

In one exercise, a health clinic employee tells the U.S. development worker that medicine sent by Washington to fight a cholera outbreak is being sold off in the local market.

"They will encounter these live exercises on the ground all the time," said Michael Keays, a State Department employee who just returned from Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan and now helps with the training.

It was important to be aware of a range of cultural issues, he said.

"The Pashtuns, for instance, are very traditional. They have their own tribal code — concepts like revenge, honor and self-sufficiency," Keays said.

DIFFERENT AGENDAS

Most of those on the course are in their 40s and 50s, drawn from government jobs or out of retirement. Some are looking for adventure, others have loftier goals.

Former banker Kevin Kock said it was a hard decision to go to Afghanistan, where he will work on agriculture projects, but he hoped the experience would get him a university teaching job when he got back to the United States.

Back in Nebraska, he dealt largely in agricultural loans, experience he thinks will be useful in Afghanistan.

"Everyone understands the potential in this thing. But I am not going into this with rose-colored glasses. I understand the reality of what is going on," said Kock, who leaves behind a son in high school and a daughter due to get married in April.

Much of the training at Muscatatuck revolves around working closely with the military in what are known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams, a formula also used in Iraq.

Christine Danton, who has worked for several nongovernmental organizations in Africa, said getting to know the "protocol" for working alongside soldiers was useful.

"Just a simple thing of being around guns takes getting used to," she said.

Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, who visited the training center on Thursday, was quizzed by one U.S. Agency for International Development worker about whether the embassy in Kabul was ready for them and how Obama’s strategy review — set to be announced soon — would affect the role of civilians.

Lew said he did not expect major changes on the civilian side, although staff could be shifted around, depending on where additional U.S. troops were sent.

"We are doing contingency planning to be able to respond to a number of different scenarios," Lew said. (Editing by John O’Callaghan)





Nov 18, 2009

U.S. near end of Pakistan aid review, focus on energy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States expects to complete a review on how to spend $7.5 billion in proposed aid for Pakistan by the end of this month, with an early focus on the country’s decrepit energy sector, senior U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Chronic power shortages are a big political issue in Pakistan. They undermine growth potential, economists say, and weaken support for the fragile civilian government.

Nov 18, 2009

U.S. wants Karzai to use speech for concrete steps

WASHINGTON, Nov 18 (Reuters) – The United States and its allies want Afghan President Hamid Karzai to use Thursday’s inauguration speech to announce concrete steps to fight corruption and govern better, U.S. and Western officials said.

Karzai will be sworn in for a second term at a ceremony attended by international dignitaries looking for signs of Karzai’s commitment. His disputed election victory last August was tarnished by widespread vote rigging.

"The international community will be paying very close attention to that speech but what is more important is what Karzai does afterward," said a senior U.S. official.

A European diplomat said several nations had given Karzai a "shopping list" of what he needed to do including reaching out to his political enemies and combating corruption. They hoped he would refer to those items in his speech.

"We would like some sort of roadmap. We want some clear direction given here," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition he was not named since the matter is sensitive.

Since Karzai was declared winner of the fraud-plagued election, he has been told repeatedly he needs to keep his promise of establishing clean government if he wants to retain support from countries like the United States and Britain where support for the war is waning.

"They will all be emphasizing the fragile nature of their own domestic public opinions and the difficulties they will have supporting Afghanistan on a continuous basis unless their own publics see improvements there," said James Dobbins, a former U.S. ambassador, now with Rand Corporation.

An ABC/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans did not believe the war in Afghanistan was worth the cost.

President Barack Obama is preparing to announce, perhaps next week, a new strategy for the eight-year war, including sending up to 40,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Obama has made clear the United States needs to partner with a legitimate Afghan government for the plan to work. His own ambassador in Kabul has expressed reservations about sending more troops if Karzai’s performance does not improve.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday Afghanistan could only count on more civilian aid if its ministries were "certified" and could be held accountable for the money.

"We’re going to be doing what we can to create an atmosphere in which the blood and treasure that the United States has committed to Afghanistan can be justified," Clinton said.

EARLY ENCOURAGEMENT

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown named five areas Karzai must work on: the transfer of security responsibility to Afghans, good governance and actions against corruption, reconciliation, economic development and better relations with neighbors, said a British official in Washington.

"We are looking towards the Afghan government to work on this. It is about a commitment between the president and his people," said the official.

Obama administration officials said they were encouraged by steps announced by Karzai so far, including the creation of a major crimes task force and an anti-corruption unit.

"But a lot will depend on the implementation," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

An early focus will be on who Karzai appoints to his cabinet and whether he fills ministries with cronies deemed as corrupt by the West.

Afghanistan analyst Alexander Thier, who has just returned from a trip to Kabul, said the United States and others must make clear to Karzai there would be serious consequences if he did not follow through on public commitments.

For example, ministries which did not perform could have funding for specific programs blocked and individuals accused of being corrupt could have their assets frozen abroad.

"We can press for their arrest and prosecution. There are a lot of tools we can use to penalize them," said Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The United States itself should stop dealing with corrupt officials and deal with allegations that Karzai’s brother, suspected of being a drug kingpin, is on the CIA payroll.

"We cannot simply demand of Karzai a change of his style, We need to make it too," said Thier. (Editing by Alan Elsner)




Nov 17, 2009

Washington leak machine weighs on Afghan review

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s review of war strategy in Afghanistan has seen a steady supply of leaks that have portrayed a divided administration riven by factions trying to influence the decision.

Leaks have framed the debate between those who want to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and those who oppose such an escalation.

Nov 15, 2009

Clinton wants tangible Afghan progress from Karzai

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to “do better” if he wanted U.S. support, and that included creating a major crimes tribunal and anti-corruption commission.

“We’re going to be doing what we can to create an atmosphere in which the blood and treasure that the United States has committed to Afghanistan can be justified and can produce the kind of results that we’re looking for,” Clinton said in an interview with ABC News from Singapore.

Nov 11, 2009

NGOs press U.S. on Pakistan aid package

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The $1.5 billion a year U.S. aid package proposed for Pakistan has raised hackles among many U.S. aid groups who worry that channeling big amounts of money through the country’s fragile government will backfire.

U.S.-based groups with projects in Pakistan have met several times in recent weeks with Obama administration officials to voice concern over the handling of the five-year package, which will be tackled differently from previous aid.

Nov 11, 2009

NGOs press U.S. government on Pakistan aid package

WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – The $1.5 billion a year U.S. aid package proposed for Pakistan has raised hackles among many U.S. aid groups who worry that channeling big amounts of money through the country’s fragile government will backfire.

U.S.-based groups with projects in Pakistan have met several times in recent weeks with Obama administration officials to voice concern over the handling of the five-year package, which will be tackled differently from previous aid.

"We have highlighted the risk of running large amounts of money through the government of Pakistan and that this would end up biting them," said one aid group executive.

Aside from worries U.S. funds are more likely to be lost to corruption if distributed through the government, there are also fears U.S.-based groups working in Pakistan will lose some of their own funding in favor of local NGOs and civil society groups.

A senior U.S. official, who declined to be named or quoted directly without government clearance, said there was a plan to move away from so-called big-box contracts favored by the Bush administration, which were often handled by big U.S. firms.

The official also said some contracts are likely to be cut, and so far one has been scrapped of the 40 or so U.S.-funded projects in Pakistan — a water project run by a consortium called QED.

Questions are also being raised by some officials inside the Obama administration and last month a senior U.S. Agency for International Development economist wrote his opinions in a seldom-used "dissent channel" at the State Department.

The economist complained of "contradictory" objectives for the Pakistan program and said few Pakistani firms and nongovernmental organizations could meet the stringent financial management and audit requirements for U.S. funding.

But the senior U.S. official involved in the aid plan said accounting firms were being hired in Pakistan to "certify" ministries to ensure they were competent to handle the money and other safeguards would be in place in local NGOs.

OBAMA SIGNED

U.S President Barack Obama signed the aid bill last month with the intent of funding a range of projects, from energy and schools to water management, roads and the judicial system.

The goal is to use aid to fight extremism but the aid plan, which still has to be appropriated by Congress, met an unexpected firestorm in Pakistan where questions of sovereignty were raised and the country’s military opposed some conditions attached to the funds.

The State Department’s aid coordinator for Pakistan, Robin Raphel, has nearly finished a review of current U.S.-funded projects there — amounting to about $400 million a year — and is drawing up a list of how new money should be spent.

Raphel is expected in Washington next week to answer questions from Congress as well as administration officials about the planned mix of aid and what safeguards will be used to meet legal requirements for U.S. taxpayer funds.

U.S. NGOs declined to publicly criticize the Obama administration but several have voiced frustration over what appeared to be a lack of coherence in the U.S. approach and fears money would not reach the right places.

"We are in an ongoing dialogue with the administration and we welcome the opportunity to help them develop a more efficient aid strategy," said Sam Worthington, who heads InterAction, an umbrella group representing over 150 U.S. NGOs of whom about a third have programs in Pakistan.

"We recognize that there is a changed process and that has people nervous until we have clarity over what is going to come out of that," added Worthington.

In the meantime, Pakistani aid groups are gearing up for new funds, said Zulfiqar Ali, a Pakistani development consultant, adding there were also concerns locally about the government’s involvement.

"One, it may delay the implementation, and delay the payment. And second, they think that the government of Pakistan officials would be expecting their own cut, commission, on the work that they give out so they see a higher potential for corruption," said Ali.

Underlying all this is a mistrust of U.S. intentions.

"There is lot of suspicion, even when the Americans build schools or hospitals. The general feeling is that this is being given as sort of a bribe and there are ulterior motives," said Ali. (Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad; editing by Vicki Allen)






Nov 10, 2009

Oversight of U.S. aid to Afghanistan “sloppy”

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Oversight and controls for more than $40 billion in U.S. funds to rebuild Afghanistan have been “sloppy” so far despite lessons from Iraq, the U.S. chief inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction said on Tuesday.

Retired Major General Arnold Fields said there needed to be more accountability, particularly as the Obama administration intends to funnel more funds through Afghan institutions.

Nov 10, 2009

Oversight of U.S. aid to Afghanistan "sloppy"

WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) – Oversight and controls for more than $40 billion in U.S. funds to rebuild Afghanistan have been "sloppy" so far despite lessons from Iraq, the U.S. chief inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction said on Tuesday.

Retired Major General Arnold Fields said there needed to be more accountability, particularly as the Obama administration intends to funnel more funds through Afghan institutions.

"I think sloppy is a fairly decent characterization," said Fields in an interview, when asked about oversight so far of U.S. taxpayer funds dedicated to rebuilding Afghanistan since 2002.

"There is an underlying issue of corruption that needs to be addressed," added Fields, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an office funded by Congress last year to track U.S. funds there.

Fields’ assessment comes as President Barack Obama weighs sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to counter a resurgent Taliban, accompanied by greater U.S. civilian efforts to boost Afghan capacity.

So far, Fields’ office has 57 staff, of whom about half are in Afghanistan, with plans to more than double that next year.

"If folks are out there wasting, defrauding or abusing taxpayer dollars, they will be caught," said Fields, who has established a hotline for people to report abuses (here)

Two dual Afghan-U.S. nationals were set to be sentenced on Friday in the United States after they pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe a U.S. sergeant for the design of a road in Logar province.

Their bribery scheme amounted to about $3 million, said retired FBI agent Raymond DiNunzio, who works in Fields’ Arlington, Virginia, office. It involved wiring money to U.S. banks, the delivery of luxury vehicles to the homes of contractors and many other schemes.

DiNunzio said of 50 investigations he was currently working on in Afghanistan, a third involved contractor fraud or criminal wrongdoing.

While much of their work has only just begun, auditors and investigators indicated early signs were not good.

"My overall impression is that there is an awful lot to audit and investigate," said John Brummet, chief of audits in the inspector general’s office.

SECURITY FOCUS

About $18.6 billion of the more than $40 billion in U.S. funds is dedicated to security — the training and equipping of the Afghan army and police force. Investigators have several audits open for security contracts which will be complete next year.

"We probably should expect more to show for our money," Fields said.

He recalled visiting military facilities in Herat province where roads, buildings and equipment looked good but this did not translate into improved Afghan capacity.

"You don’t fight the Taliban or al Qaeda with good facilities. You fight with good troops who know how to use the equipment and how to maintain it. Maybe that is where the rub is, but I don’t know yet."

Fields was appointed in June last year, drawing on his experience coordinating more than $21 billion in U.S. funds to rebuild Iraq after the U.S. invasion of March 2003.

As in Iraq, a big chunk of Afghan spending goes toward providing security for projects, sometimes accounting for 30 to 40 percent of the total cost, Brummet said.

The Bush administration was roundly assailed for its rebuilding efforts in Iraq. Critics said it served more to pad the pockets of major U.S. companies than build local capacity.

This time, the Obama administration wants Afghan firms to have more opportunities, but this has its own problems in a country where corruption is endemic and limited controls are in place to ensure money is used properly.

"We need to have proper oversight of contractors whether they be U.S. or Afghan and that is something we are looking at," said Brummet.

Fields and his investigators are frequently asked whether lessons learned in Iraq were being implemented. Early audits point to the same problems — lack of oversight and internal controls, inattention to maintenance and not putting enough into building up Afghan institutions.

"These are all themes that came out of the hard lessons book and we are seeing the same things," said Brummet.

(Editing by Eric Beech)





Nov 4, 2009

U.S. presses Karzai to reach new deal with allies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies are pressing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a pact that includes an anti-corruption commission, merit-based appointments and gives more authority to local leaders, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The proposed deal could help President Barack Obama make the case for a counterinsurgency strategy that hinges in large part on success winning Afghan public support for Karzai’s government as an alternative to the Taliban.

    • About Sue

      "Sue Pleming covers foreign policy, with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She joined Reuters in London in 1990 and was based in Brussels before moving to Washington, where her most recent post was covering the State Department. She started her journalism career in southern Africa and has also done reporting stints in Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi."
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