MARAWARA DISTRICT, Afghanistan — After nine years of reconstruction efforts that have cost billions of dollars, U.S. military and civilian experts are trying a different strategy in this remote corner of eastern Afghanistan: doing more by doing less.
"We've been like Santa Claus, going through money, whatever you need," said Navy Cmdr. William B. Goss, who commands the 100-person reconstruction team at Forward Operating Base Wright, near the Kunar provincial capital of Asadabad.
The funding for U.S. projects wasn't always steady, nor was the oversight, and the planning was often criticized. Now there's a change of focus.
Goss and his contingent, who arrived here in late October, still oversee the construction of desperately needed infrastructure and promote the role of women in this deeply conservative region, but the focus is on tutoring local officials.
Development projects now are running on Afghan, rather than American, schedules, even if it takes longer to build a road or school. Fewer projects are started, and only those with the prospect of continuing after foreign troops leave.
This is a real makeover: U.S. troops here have even stopped handing out candy and pens to the young boys who gather whenever they leave the base.
Kunar is a test ground for Vice President Joe Biden's declaration last month that it's time for the United States "to start to take the training wheels off" in Afghanistan.
Whether the strategy succeeds in Kunar and elsewhere in Afghanistan will determine — along with combat operations — whether the United States leaves behind even a minimally stable country.
Biden's philosophy was on display last week when Goss and his team visited the U.S.-funded Lahore Dag Middle School to inspect the moss green and white structure, which opened in late October to 206 students.
Headmaster Faiz Mohammed was happy with his clean, new 14-room school. The electricity and plumbing worked as promised. His students no longer would have to study in tents or outdoors under trees. But Mohammed was hoping for a little more American largesse.
"If it's possible . . . to receive any stationery?" he asked. The answer was a polite "no."
"I wish I could help you with everything that is needed," U.S. Navy Lt. David Pfaefflin told Mohammed. "I'm hoping that the (Afghan) government gets more involved in helping provide for the school."
Mohammed said later that the government had promised to help, but hadn't yet delivered.
"It's very slow. It's very cumbersome. And it takes a lot of patience to watch them fumble over it," Goss told McClatchy. The Afghan government is supposed to take charge.
At first glance, Kunar seems an unlikely place for progress.
Its long border with Pakistan and isolated valleys cutting deep through forbidding mountains provide passage and a haven for a lethal mix of insurgent groups. They include al Qaida, Taliban elements and the Hezb-i-Islami faction, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who as one of the country's mujahedeen commanders battled the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s.
Through the end of last year, Kunar was the third-most-deadly province for NATO troops after Helmand and Kandahar in the south, with 142 deaths, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in the Afghan and Iraq wars.
In April, U.S. troops withdrew from Kunar's Korengal Valley after sustaining heavy casualties for four years. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets, during their earlier occupation, pacified the Korengal.
Last week, U.S. and Afghan troops fought intense battles with insurgents in Kunar's Pech Valley and elsewhere in the province.
U.S. and Afghan officials no longer talk of ending all violence. But in the population centers in the shadow of Kunar's cedar-dotted mountains, remarkable progress has been made, they say.
Forty thousands girls attend school in Kunar, about one-third of the total enrollment. Rampant timber-smuggling has been cut in half. Nurgal district, in the province's south, recently held Afghanistan's first public trial at a district level. Locals flocked to see what public — as opposed to back-room — justice looked like.
Kunar's governor, Fazlullah Wahidi, expressed mixed feelings about the more measured U.S. approach, with its slower schedules and more focused development projects.
"I think the American idea is less work, careful work, clear work ... not to rush like before," Wahidi said in an interview in Kabul. But "the need of the people is something else," he added, worrying aloud about providing jobs to keep as much of the populace as possible "in our hands" and out of the insurgency's.
"Maybe they wasted a lot," he said of past U.S. spending in Afghanistan, "but they didn't waste in Kunar."
Wahidi, an English-speaking former humanitarian relief official, is a rarity in Afghanistan. Most officials use their positions for self-enrichment; Wahidi has a reputation for honesty, and an interest in the unglamorous business of governance. Americans play the tutors.
"We welcome their advice only. We organize the rest on our own," he said.
Goss, of Annapolis, Md., who speaks some of the local Pashto language, and Wahidi work in tandem. Wahidi's headaches are in Kabul, where he isn't part of President Hamid Karzai's inner circle.
"You ask for something in the summer, they give it in the winter," he said.
Weaning Kunar's provincial and local governments to try to stand on their own will take time. While they won't say so publicly, many U.S. military commanders are relieved that the White House has de-emphasized what they saw as an unrealistic July 2011 date to begin withdrawing American troops in favor of a 2014 deadline, agreed to at last month's NATO summit.
Kunar remains dangerous, even on an outwardly routine mission. Before piling into their hulking Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, Goss' troops gathered for a morning "patrol brief" that included hair-raising reports of threats against Americans and their convoys.
Goss' driver is a female U.S. soldier, a visible message about women's roles in a country where women don't drive.
The first stop was the Marawara bridge, just north of Asadabad. Completed with U.S. money last year, it significantly cut travel times up and down the narrow Kunar River valley. But the bridge was badly damaged in the historic floods that also devastated much of Pakistan. It will have to be repaired.
As Goss chatted in Pashto with a quickly gathering crowd of Afghan boys, Navy Corpsman James Beheler mused about sustaining this and other U.S. efforts.
"It's going to have to get to the point where the people want it," said Beheler, of Rocky Mount, Va. They will have to stand up, he said, "and not be intimidated."
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