In Afghanistan, The Civil Service 'Surge' That Isn't

Kandahar's governor Tooryalai Wesa i i

Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, says that international organizations are attracting Afghans with better salaries, which creates another problem for recruiting civil servants. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Kandahar's governor Tooryalai Wesa

Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, says that international organizations are attracting Afghans with better salaries, which creates another problem for recruiting civil servants.

David Gilkey/NPR

As U.S. troops flood into southern Afghanistan, the same can't be said for Afghan government workers. There are critical shortages of government bureaucrats in regions such as Helmand and Kandahar. U.S. military officers are particularly frustrated by the lack of a civilian "surge."

Marine Gen. Richard Mills commands some 20,000 Marines in Helmand province, a key haven for Taliban fighters. But he says that what he really needs are a few good Afghan bureaucrats.

"It's a difficult thing to do — it's difficult to attract talented civil servants," Mills said.

Next door in Kandahar province, the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, is having the same trouble. "In some districts, we have only the district governor with the police chief," he said. "So if you could at least have an attorney there or a prosecutor or a judge or a finance guy."

U.S. officials say they have filled only about 25 percent of the key government jobs in Kandahar province, and that Helmand isn't much better.

It's a serious problem. The insurgency has gained strength because the Afghan government is either corrupt — or not around. Villagers in the south tell NPR that they haven't seen any government officials, sometimes for years. And some senior government officials, like district governors, sometimes don't even live in their districts.

It's not like Afghan government workers aren't available. There's a Civil Service Training Institute in Kabul, funded by the U.S. and other countries, that's graduating thousands of would-be bureaucrats.

"Right now, they've reached 11,000," said Earl Gast, who runs the Afghanistan programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide. "And the target is to get to 15,000 or 16,000 trained civil servants before the end of the year."

But Gast pointed out that there's a simple reason why many of them are unwilling to work in Helmand or Kandahar: "If you work for the government, especially, you've got a target on your back," he said.

Those two provinces have seen the worst of the fighting. A Kandahar district governor was killed by a car bomb this summer, and there has been a surge of assassinations of local government workers in Helmand province.

U.S. officials have responded by building dormitories where government workers can live under tight security, and the Afghan government is providing hardship pay to work in the provinces. But officials say recruitment is moving slowly.

Security isn't the only issue. The American government is also part of the problem: The U.S. military and the State Department are scooping up the best-educated Afghans to work as translators. One senior officer, who asked not to be named, said the smartest and most educated Afghans he met were all working for the U.S., and that it wasn't exactly a blueprint for the way the government ought to be doing this.

"We are competing in some ways with the Afghan government for staff," said Alex Thier, who is in charge of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in Washington. "We do pay more often than the Afghan government civil service salary."

An Afghan government salary can run up to about $2,400 per year, but Afghan translators can make at least $80,000 a year working for the Americans.

Thier said the U.S. and its allies are trying to fix the disparity by providing more money to help Afghanistan beef up those government salaries. And he hopes that as security improves, more Afghans will agree to take up civil service posts in Helmand and Kandahar.

Private relief organizations, known as NGOs, are also attracting Afghans with better salaries. That's one more sector that people like Wesa have to compete against.

"Because the government cannot afford the salaries the NGOs pay for that, the international NGOs, so that will be a challenge," Wesa said.

But there's another, largely untapped, source of Afghan talent that he and others are trying to attract.

"My recommendation from the very beginning is to bring the former Afghans living overseas," Wesa said. "Canada, United States, Europe, Australia — those are full of former, experienced, educated Afghans."

Wesa himself was a college professor in Canada before he returned to his homeland two years ago. He hopes other Afghans will follow his lead, driven by patriotism — rather than a paycheck.

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