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Northern Governor Lashes Out at NATO

With tensions mounting between foreign troops and the local population, the head of one northern province goes on the warpath.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
As the situation in Afghanistan’s north continues its precipitous decline, the governor of Balkh province seems to be looking for someone to blame. That, at least, is the impression Mohammad Noor Atta gave on July 8 when he lashed out at the Swedish-led Provincial Reconstruction Team during a press conference.



"We hear that Provincial Reconstruction Teams in other parts of the country are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstruction, but this team in our province has not provided even a single desk for a school. It is very painful for us," he said angrily.



There are PRTs all across Afghanistan, operating under NATO command and designed as civilian-military partnerships to build security and run reconstruction projects.



Atta went on to condemn the PRT in Balkh province as “deficient” and “useless”, and to warn that its failure to deliver could have serious consequences.



"There is no anti-foreigner sentiment in Balkh province, but if things keep on like this, people’s feelings will change,” he said. “People will grow more estranged from the foreigners day by day, and will start objecting to their presence.”



The governor’s warning was especially ominous in light of developments in nearby Kunduz province, where a series of attacks on foreign troops and reconstruction teams recently necessitated a temporary shutdown of development projects by the German-led PRT.



The PRTs in Afghanistan’s provinces are managed by a variety of different countries, in a complex distribution of responsibility. The Swedes are in charge in Balkh, the Germans in Kunduz, Italians in Herat, the Dutch in Uruzgan, and so on.



The Swedes arrived in Balkh in March, 2006, taking over from the British, who are now deployed in Helmand province. In addition to Swedish forces, over 400 troops from Finland, Denmark and Poland assist on the Balkh PRT, which is also responsible for the nearby Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pul and Samangan provinces.



While there has been a general feeling in Afghanistan that PRTs have not been performing as they should, this is the first time a high-ranking official has been quite so blunt.



"I have told them many times that they cannot provide security here with their few hundred soldiers. Security in the province is established by the people,” said Atta. “So please, live up to your commitments and take part in the reconstruction that people need.”



PRT officials defend their efforts, and beg for patience.



“It is just a misunderstanding,” said Colonel Pertti Pullinen, deputy head of the Balkh PRT. “We have more than 2,000 projects being implemented in our area of responsibility, and the PRT plays a role in all of these projects.”



However, he added, “These projects do not advertise which countries support them, because… we, like others, do not spend the money directly. Instead, we give it to the Afghan government to spend in areas where it sees a need.”



According to Pullinen, the Swedish government has spent more than 50 million US dollars on reconstruction projects, he added.



“And this process is continuing,” he said. "Not spending the money directly and having no physical presence on projects does not mean that we are not working. But our method is different.”



Pullinen added that the PRT had played a role in training the police and the army in the north, as well as delivering medical services to people in remote areas.



“We have helped doctors become familiar with new methods, and we have done a lot for the reconstruction of health centres and in clearing landmines from areas around schools.”



Pullinen said he was puzzled by Atta’s outburst.



“We have had good relations with the governor,” he said. “We have implemented our plans in coordination with him. We really don't know what the reason is for his recent assertions, but we will contact him to eliminate the misunderstanding and move ahead jointly."



However, people in Balkh province seem to be on the governor’s side.



"We have only heard that there is a team called the Provincial Reconstruction Team, but we have yet to see any work from them," said Mohammad Parwaiz, a student at Balkh University. "They spend days in air-conditioned rooms on their base, and then when they get bored they come out onto the roads with their armoured vehicles, blocking the way and bothering people,” he said.



"The government should let the PRT go, take the money they have been spending on its accommodation in Mazar-e-Sharif, and spend it directly on reconstruction," he said. "Otherwise, the soldiers are just a burden on people."



Noorullah, a 60-year-old resident of Balkh district, is a farmer who used to grow opium poppy.



"To be honest, we haven’t heard the term ‘PRT’ before, but if you mean these foreign soldiers, that’s fine. When we hear about them, the only things that come to mind are tanks, weapons and military uniforms. They are very far removed from reconstruction!" said Noorullah. "I have yet to see these foreigners give people even a piece of bread.”



He concluded, “At the beginning, I was very happy that the world had come to Afghanistan to rebuild our country, but I’ve lost my faith in them."



Observers note the growing tension between the governor and PRT, and say it is much more than a misunderstanding.



“There are two things to keep in mind,” said Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in northern Afghanistan. “First, the PRT really is useless.



“PRTs in general, and all foreigners, do not come to Afghanistan in the interests of the Afghan people. They do not act according to what the people or the Afghan government want. They have to work within the framework set out by their own governments. And these rules sometimes make the Afghan authorities unhappy.”



“Second,” he continued, “this sudden reaction from the Balkh governor shows that the PRT might have failed to take his personal interest into account. The PRT may have turned down a proposal from the governor's NGO and he might have been angered by this.”



Babak confirmed there was a groundswell of resentment about the foreign presence, but he attributed it to problems created by local Afghan power-brokers.



“Despite the presence of thousands of foreigners, the situation in some districts has not improved,” he said. “Local commanders rule people’s lives, they extort money and marry people’s daughters by force.”



Given this state of affairs, the provincial government needed a scapegoat, said Babak.



“People are protesting, and government officials have to criticise the foreigners because they want to hold onto their posts,” he said. “This is the start of serious tensions between the foreign military and provincial officials. Popular animosity towards foreigners is going to increase day by day.”



Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.



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