US aid effort under fire in Pak border area

A major US effort to erode support for terrorists by pumping aids into violence-wracked Afghan border region is being threatened by attacks on aid workers,corruption and layers of bureaucracy.

Written by Agencies | Islamabad | Published:February 27, 2009 10:34 am

A major US effort to erode support for the Taliban and al-Qaida by pumping millions of aid dollars into the violence-wracked Afghan border region is being threatened by attacks on aid workers,corruption and layers of bureaucracy.

The Obama administration has pledged to use development aid as a foreign policy tool,and is expected to unveil a new hike in assistance before April. But there are concerns about how the money is being spent in remote valleys too dangerous for foreign aid workers to venture and where residents risk a beheading if they cross the militants.

A Taliban commander in the North Waziristan border region warned residents last month to shun the “sweet poison” of development aid. “Wait for the consequences,if anybody accepts anything,” Gul Bahadur warned in a leaflet.

Three years after the Bush administration pledged $750 million for the impoverished tribal belt,people associated with the effort told The Associated Press that a clutch of education and road-building projects are finally getting under way.

Washington has cloaked its efforts in secrecy,foregoing an opportunity to show off a kinder American face in order to protect its staff and contractors.

The danger of operating openly was made brutally evident in November,when suspected militants killed American aid worker Stephen Vance as he drove to work in Peshawar. The top US diplomat there survived a similar attack in August.

The attacks have complicated the task of winning the hearts and minds of the northwest’s fiercely independent tribes.

“Precious little” new American money has reached the tribal belt,said Owais Ahmed Ghani,governor of the turbulent North West Frontier Province. “Things have to translate on the ground.”

Ghani regularly hosts visiting US officials and lays out ambitious plans that include industrial parks to create jobs and solar-powered TV sets to pull the region toward modernity.

But,he complained,Washington has been reluctant to embrace marquee projects that could leave a lasting impact on local attitudes toward the West. He said he offered to name a major dam to irrigate large swaths of barren tribal land after John Kerry if the senator could arrange the funding.

Kerry is sponsoring a financial aid bill for Pakistan,an earlier version of which foresaw providing another $7.5 billion in civilian assistance over five years across the whole of the country.

American officials involved in tribal region projects refused to discuss them on the record and provided only an outline of how they are proceeding.

The US aid is part of a broader Pakistani plan to isolate extremists in the tribal areas,a belt of territory little larger than Vermont seen as the likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden.

Just 17 percent of the adult population — and only one in 30 women — is literate,while the infant mortality rate is nearly 9 percent. An estimated 60 percent of its 3.2 million people live in poverty.

Pakistani officials say the US government’s development arm,USAID,is already supporting several teacher training colleges and funds are flowing into other pre-existing American programs,including police training and counternarcotics projects.

“If you try to build a school in (a militant stronghold) today,how long will it be there before it is attacked?” asked Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group,a Brussels-based think tank. “It is in the interests of the militants to make sure that the state isn’t seen to deliver services.”

The effort faces a key test in Bajur,the northernmost tribal area,where the army says it has broken up a Taliban mini-state and stemmed the flow of fighters into Afghanistan in an offensive that killed more than 1,000 people and caused widespread destruction.

Mohammed Jamil,a government official in Bajur,said American aid was paying for new roads,clinics and schools. He was vague on the details — perhaps intentionally,considering the risk of accepting American aid — but residents said they had noticed some changes.

A few miles away,a group of about 30 men toiled to lay foundations for a new road.

“It does not make any difference whether it is American or Pakistani money,” said Sardar Khan,a 32-year-old trying to break a rock with a hammer. “The good thing is that I got a job.”

Khan Zamir,a tribal elder in Bajur,said community leaders understood that funding for a rash of recent projects was American. He said no one had objected.

However,he quickly raised another concern: corruption.

“There should be strict monitoring of the use of the American funds,” Zamir said. “We don’t know if what America gave for us is reaching our areas.”

USAID is working closely with the FATA Secretariat,a government body that has drawn up a nine-year development plan for the tribal belt. It is also relying on an array of American consultants and contractors to lead its projects.

They face huge challenges to monitor what is happening on the ground — and avoid the fraud and waste that tarnished reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Several contractors declined to comment for this article,citing security concerns. At least two local government workers sent in to monitor projects have been killed.

Zafar Hasan,an official leading Pakistan’s development efforts,said his staff was afraid to take in equipment such as satellite positioning devices and digital cameras for fear of Taliban checkpoints.

“They say: ‘If we are caught with all these things we will be shot,'” Hasan said.

A European expert involved in the FATA projects,who asked for anonymity in return for speaking candidly,said the Americans risk “digging a pit” into which aid money disappears without a trace.

Schools are often commandeered by troops or militants in the tribal belt or converted into homes for local powerbrokers. Others fall into disrepair or lack staff and materials.

“If they are going to get the local population,rather than the local elite,on their side … you have to focus on services” by ensuring schools and clinics operate properly,he said.

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