STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan, and some people there say foreign aid still is not reaching the people who need it most. Westerners have struggled for years to find out the best formula for improving the country. So this morning we will hear from some of the people passing out the money.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson continues a series of reports on rebuilding Afghanistan.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: U.S. Navy Commander Larry Legree spent a year fighting insurgents here in Kunar, a mountainous province northeast of Kabul. He didn't do it with guns. Instead, Legree, former head of the provincial reconstruction team, used development to undermine insurgents and win over residents, like these two bridges his contractors are building across the Kunar River.
He says once completed the bridges will connect residents of this isolated part of the province along Pakistan's border with the rest of Afghanistan.
Commander LARRY LEGREE (U.S. Navy): We've seen it everywhere else, where once we've build roads through some of these valleys and we build bridges that connect population areas, the economics just go through the roof. And now you get people above bare subsistence living where they're susceptible to enemy influences, get them to where they care about starting a small business, selling excess commodities, and getting to secondary and tertiary markets.
NELSON: The projects also provide badly needed employment in Kunar where workers earn the equivalent of $5 a day, a decent salary by local standards. The Kunar provincial reconstruction team, or PRT, is one of about two dozen in Afghanistan mostly run by officers from NATO countries in far-flung provinces. They are the face of Western development aid for millions of Afghans.
Nowadays these teams work closely with local Afghan leaders, letting them propose and vet projects which the military then reviews and funds. But PRTs have many Western critics who argue the military shouldn't be in the development business. They say experienced civilian agencies are better equipped for the job and that unlike the military teams, civilians don't leave Afghans with the impression that foreign soldiers are in charge.
The military counters that civilian aid organizations refuse to go to unsafe areas where the PRTs are.
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NELSON: The Kunar team regularly fires its howitzer at insurgent positions in the Korengal Valley several miles away. The militants, with local help, make Kunar one of the more dangerous places for U.S. troops in Afghanistan - even though the Americans are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing this province.
Legree's successor is Commander Dan Dwyer. The Navy pilot firmly believes that PRTs must stay and continue developing volatile areas like Kunar.
Commander DAN DWYER (U.S. Navy): We can't have governance, we can't have security, if people can't maneuver around their own backyard.
NELSON: Spending vastly more than the PRTs on reconstruction is the U.S. Agency for International Development, which tackles long-term projects, many of them in dangerous areas, like Afghanistan's Ring Road, which is to be finished next year. It's a paved beltway designed to connect key Afghan cities to each other and neighboring countries.
Yet many Afghan officials grumble that USAID does not consult with them enough on projects or contracts. They say America may be the country that donates the most money to Afghanistan, but that it gives Afghans the least control.
U.S. officials argue that there hasn't been anyone for them to turn the projects over to, that the Afghan government needs to develop more capacity, and that corruption is too rampant for the agency to simply hand over the pot of money. Susan DeCamp is one of the U.S. agency's representatives in Khost province, southeast of Kabul.
Ms. SUSAN DECAMP (USAID): Overall I think that USAID has a tremendous responsibility. This is the development agency of the U.S. government, and accountability is like first and foremost. Failure is not an option. One bad project and your whole reputation is down the tubes. It only takes one. It doesn't matter if you have 500 projects out there.
NELSON: She and others say strict accounting standards and a dearth of qualified Afghan companies have led the U.S. agency to hire foreign contractors to do much of the work. The for-profit companies, in turn, subcontract with regional or local laborers to build the projects.
Many people involved in aid work here criticize that approach. One controversial report released this year by Oxfam, a leading British charity, accused the Americans of wasting development money. Anja de Beer heads ACBAR, a nongovernmental organization in Kabul that provided the research for the report.
Ms. ANJA DE BEER (ACBAR): Of the USAID money, a lot of money goes to for-profit, big for-profit companies, and then you don't get your bang for your buck. A lot of money goes back to the donor country. It goes with the profits, and because of, you know, the consultant salaries, procurement regulations, where things are not necessarily purchased in Afghanistan.
NELSON: Many donors have rejected the report's findings, accusing the authors of using faulty numbers and wanting more development money for their own agencies. They also preach patience to Afghans, saying that building their country from the ground up takes time.
Christopher Dell is the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DELL: People tend to forget how bad it was because we all get used to things. But a statistic, a fact, I mean an example: In 2001, there were 15 phone lines in Afghanistan that could call the outside world. Today there are several million mobile phone subscribers who can pick up their phone and call their relatives in California or London or anywhere else.
NELSON: But the newly arrived United Nations special envoy, Kai Eide, says it would be wrong to ignore the Oxfam report.
Mr. KAI EIDE (United National Special Envoy): I was pleased to read it because it pointed the finger at exactly the right problems. How do we manage to spend our money better, how can we leave more money in this country, how can we develop Afghan capabilities better? Because they have to be developed if our efforts are to be sustainable.
NELSON: Some of those answers may come at a conference in Paris next month. There, the Afghan government is planning to ask donors for $50 billion to implement its first nationwide strategy for development.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.