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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Since 2002, international donors have pledged nearly $56 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, making it one of the world's largest recipients of foreign aid. The United States is by far the largest donor. U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry told Afghans in a speech last week they can expect billions more from Americans in the coming year.

Mr. KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): We will concentrate on agriculture and other key sectors of the economy while reducing the pool of poor, unemployed men who are most vulnerable to the recruiters of extremism and militant violence.

WERTHEIMER: Yet many Afghans are unmoved by such promises. They complain that international aid often amounts to a hodgepodge of expensive and often shoddy projects in dangerous areas with little local say over how the money is spent.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports in this fourth part of our series on Afghanistan.

Captain MAX HANLIN (U.S. Army, Afghanistan): Welcome - all right, USAID, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of State.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: On this hilltop in a Taliban-rife district north of Kandahar city, Army Captain Max Hynton talks with a group of American civilians about their impending visit to a small, mud-walled village below. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Army Captain Max HANLIN]

Capt. HANLIN: We've had some positive signs. The villagers have brought - one villager brought an anti-personnel mine, which we blew up...

NELSON: It's a place these U.S. government workers have never been to. It's also new for them to be working with soldiers like Captain Hynton, whose battalion is on the front line in the war with the Taliban. Now that the militants have been cleared out of this part of Arghandab district, the civilians' aim is to move in quickly. They hope to win over villagers with offers of cash for work and other enticements - enticements the Americans pay for but want delivered by Afghan officials responsible for Arghandab.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like these blankets the local district governor and Afghan soldiers hand out to protect the locals from winter weather.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Brian Felakos works for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mr. BRIAN FELAKOS (U.S. Agency for International Development): We want to engage the tribal elders with the government of Afghanistan. This is really at the district level where that occurs.

NELSON: But making development appear as an Afghan initiative is a hard concept for Afghans to grasp, even for the local officials in Arghandab, who these American civilians are looking to empower.

District Governor HAJI ABDUL JABAR (Arghandab): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Here, District Governor Haji Abdul Jabar tells village elders that it's the Americans - not Afghans - who are offering to pay them $6 a day to clean out canals and otherwise improve their community.

District Gov. JABAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The district governor gestures at Katya Sienkiewicz, a manager of a U.S. government agricultural voucher program. He says he's embarrassed that foreign women do more for Afghanistan than Afghan men do. This view of Afghan helplessness when it comes to development is one that's been nurtured by the West since the Taliban government was cast out eight years ago. American Mark Ward is the adviser on development to the United Nations special envoy in Kabul.

Mr. MARK WARD (Adviser on Development, UN): When all of the donors came back to Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, they were all carrying big satchels full of money. And the fact that there was no government there to tell us what to do didn't really slow us down. And that's when we started getting into some bad habits.

NELSON: Like not asking the Afghan government what its development priorities are, or donor countries focusing mainly on regions where their troops are based. The Americans, for example, spend much of their money in the eastern and southern provinces, Ward says.

Mr. WARD: But there are other parts of the country where the fight is not going on that have real potential to grow the economy of this country.

NELSON: Like the breadbaskets in central and northern Afghanistan - most farmers in this largely agrarian society still can't get their goods to market. The vast natural resources needed to make Afghanistan self-sufficient also remain untapped, with few roads to get the minerals and gems out even if they are mined. Again, Mark Ward.

Mr. WARD: Think of the jobs for unemployed youth or even Taliban who need to be reintegrated into, you know, the basic economy of this country. That economic potential does not exist in the south and the east, where the fight is.

NELSON: Besides promoting instability in peaceful areas, as residents there grow restless over being ignored, the focus on volatile areas means less money is getting to the Afghan people. Contractors, most of them Western, who collect a huge overhead, subcontract projects there several times down the line. Often they hire Afghan vendors from other provinces, which is a major problem when it comes to quality, says Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa.

Governor TOORYALAI WESA (Kandahar): Like a person not from Kandahar - if the job is done, he's gone. He doesn't live here. But if he's from Kandahar, he lives here. So everybody can ask him - so this is wrong, you did the wrong job, you have to fix it.

NELSON: Others complain that the foreign contractors also end up having to spend a ridiculous sum to protect their projects - and not just the security firms. One senior Afghan official in Kandahar told NPR that it's common practice for him and others awarded foreign-funded contracts to pay the Taliban and local warlords so they won't attack their projects.

Lorenzo Delesgues, who heads Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a think tank based in Kabul, says one of their surveys concluded no more than 40 cents of each dollar spent was actually going to development.

Mr. LORENZO DELESGUES (Integrity Watch Afghanistan): Today the figure might be even less, it might be 10 to 30 cent, because security expenses have grown.

NELSON: He cites the recent $50 million project to refurbish the Kajaki Dam.

(Soundbite of water)

NELSON: The dam was built by U.S. engineers more than a half-century ago in Helmand Province, which is now a stronghold of the Taliban. The new project is aimed at generating 100 megawatts of power to residents of Kandahar and other major southern cities.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

NELSON: Parts to run the giant Kajaki turbines were brought in by helicopter because the roads leading to the heavily guarded dam were controlled by the Taliban.

But the dam still only provides a third of the power that USAID envisaged, because the power line can't be reached to be upgraded.

Still, President Obama's plan for increased U.S. development in Afghanistan remains largely focused on the south.

The number of American government workers there has increased nearly tenfold this year, even as the United Nations and foreign NGOs have cut back their operations in the south because of insecurity.

The chief U.S. development officer in the south is Frank Ruggiero. He heads out to see projects on this day in an armored military convoy. His rank is equivalent to a two-star general and he is in charge of a seven-province region that is the most dangerous in the country. The idea, he says, is to hasten development and its handover to Afghans in pivotal population centers like greater Kandahar in hopes of persuading residents to side with the government rather than the Taliban.

Mr. FRANK RUGGIERO (U.S. Development Officer): Whenever we do reconstruction projects now, we do reconstruction projects based on what the Afghans want to do. We're here to provide them space and to give them the assistance they need to create their own government. And as President Obama said, the Afghans always have to be in the lead.

NELSON: That's hardly the case now, says U.N. adviser Mark Ward. He adds that it's time to, quote, "let the kid drive."

Mr. MARK WARD (U.N. Adviser): We have spent millions and millions of dollars training them how to manage resources, how to design a project, how to execute a project, how to account for the money, how to report and monitor and do evaluations. But we don't give them the money to see if they've learned anything.

NELSON: So far the donors seem unwilling to do so. Much to Afghan officials' chagrin, next month's development conference is again being held abroad, in London instead of in Kabul.

Insiders say talk there will focus more on setting deadlines for the Afghan government to clean up corruption than on changing the way the West does development in Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow we conclude our series with a look at justice, or the lack of it, in Afghanistan.

Unidentified Man: Eventually I met a very senior official in the supreme court and he said, son, if you want to sell your apartment, you have to pay these guys.

WERTHEIMER: Trying to change a justice system bogged down with bureaucracy and bribery. For more on our series from Afghanistan, go to npr.org.

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