Afghan communities still fearful of accepting foreign help

After almost a decade of US efforts to control the situation in Afghanistan, fear of Taliban militants still grips Afghan locals, preventing them from accepting foreign assistance.

Zabul province, located in Southern Afghanistan, is one of the poorest in the country. It borders Pakistan, making it easy for Taliban fighters operating there to get reinforcements.

The coalition forces trying to eliminate the militants there face a fight that is as much a military as an economic one.

The hope is that, by providing education, jobs and improving standards of living, local Afghans will be less likely to support the insurgents.

The recently-built girls’ school in the town of Qalat, capital of Zabul Province, is an important step forward in a country where women were once forbidden to study and where less than one percent of them are literate.

It is also an example of successful collaboration between the local community and foreigners. US soldiers helped to build the school’s eight classrooms, equip a computer room and are now preparing the playground.

The school is the largest girls’ school in town, with approximately one and a half thousand students. Principal Mahmouda Makiwal says the happiest day of her life was when she unlocked the front gate.

Nowadays I choose to work together with the American soldiers on some projects because I believe it will make our school better,” explains Makiwal.

Major Elizabeth Erickson of the US Air Force says the main goal should be improving the local government to earn the trust of the population.

Increasing the capacity of the Afghanistan government and improving the public’s perception of that government and their connection to that government – that is probably the most important thing,” says Erickson.

However, collaborating with foreigners has its perils and Mahmouda Makiwal is sometimes fearful this could become known to the Taliban.

“Most of the time the Taliban doesn’t know we are co-operating with the foreigners. This is for our own safety and security. I hope they never find out, because if they do it will create lots of problems – they will close us down,” Makiwal says.

On one of the streets of Qalat, widows prepare rose bushes for planting – another community development project. Most of the women’s husbands were killed in war and without them it is a struggle to survive.

Naik Bibi knows the risks she takes by coming each day to accept help from the Americans, but she says she has no other way of feeding her eight children.

“There is no security. We are helpless. We live on what we can get. We take a big chance by coming here and any Taliban fighter can find out about it and come shoot at us,” says Bibi. “This whole country is run by the Taliban. They are in the mountains. They are everywhere. But what to do?”

Commander Andy Veres of the US Air Force says he would rather not have his soldiers doing this kind of work.

I invite [NGOs] to come and put me out of business,” says Veres. “I want them to line up on the street corner so I can take my organization and my people home.”

At the moment, however, there remains no other option for Veres but to remain in the region.

The reality is that, until the security environment improves here to a certain level, we are just not going to have many NGOs knocking on the door to send their people into this vulnerable institution,” Veres explained.

The Obama administration recently announced that it would triple the number of civilian experts in Afghanistan to approximately one thousand people. However, that promise of help comes at a price to the Afghans, and with no guarantees that in the long run the situation will be better than it is now.