- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

ASADABAD, Afghanistan — The U.S. military thinks it finally has a governor with whom it can work in Kunar province, after a succession of incompetent and corrupt chief executives.

Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi is a warm, grandfatherly figure with a background in humanitarian assistance and small-scale development.

At a lunch with several American guests, Mr. Wahidi chuckled about the need for a new prison in the province.

“We think there are at least 2,000 bad guys up in those mountains, and if we ever catch them, we’ll have to have some place to put them,” he said.

His attitude is far different from that of Asadullah Wafa, the governor in 2005, who was described in an official U.S. government briefing document as “ill-tempered, easily frustrated” and a man who “routinely walked out on development meetings.”

A U.S. soldier who knew him personally was less polite: “He was a hash smoker and … ornery.”

President Hamid Karzai later reassigned Mr. Wafa to take charge in NATO’s British sector, the drug- and terrorism-menaced Helmand province, where he now elicits similar derision.

The next Kunar governor, Haji Mohammed Didar, ousted in November, was a mild improvement, those who worked with him said.

Described charitably in U.S. reports as “lacking administrative skills,” he maintained close ties to anti-U.S. insurgents and became infamous for giving away 5,000 goats, at a cost of $500,000 in Western aid money, to bolster his popularity.

Mr. Didar, whom many residents recalled as a warlord with an expertise in highway shakedowns, moved to Dubai last week after boasting of plans to start a business with his unofficial earnings.

Those “earnings” were largely from the $40 million that the U.S. military spent in tiny Kunar province last year. That sum amounts to about $100 per person, but the money has not accomplished what it should have because of officials like Mr. Didar.

Army Capt. Jay Coughenour, part of a 75-member civil-affairs team based in Asadabad, said the U.S. military sometimes must play with the cards it is dealt. But in Mr. Wahidi, the new governor, he thinks he has a far better hand than before.

Even so, U.S. officers say, it is the simple and devout Pashtun tribesmen of this border region who offer the best hope for Afghanistan. They already know more than U.S. soldiers about the endemic corruption, including an illegal timber and gem trade that keeps officials in the money and insurgents flush with guns.

A notorious senior al Qaeda leader, Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, still roams the densely forested highlands of Kunar, intimidating locals and boasting of his exploits.

But change, however incremental, appears to be in the making.

In a U.S.-built conference center in the Kunar governor’s compound, hundreds of district elders and women have been meeting in recent weeks to devise a framework for rural development.

The scene of Afghan men and women sitting in a circle venting their frustrations at the lack of public services is the most obvious sign of real progress.

“We’ve had an astounding turnout so far,” said Capt. Coughenour, sitting in a circle as an earnest district elder explained a large drawing of what is known as a “problem tree.”

The men and women brainstormed and scribbled their ideas on scraps of paper to define the “root causes” of their government’s incompetence and inaccessibility.

“One of the major surprises from this effort has been the unprecedented participation of women and other underrepresented groups, especially the disabled,” said Capt. Coughenour, an official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Los Angeles in civilian life.

“Yes, we are in a Third World country, but the issues that arise are the same as many that we deal with in the United States, especially when it comes to our most disenfranchised or disassociated populations.”

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