Thursday, December 01, 2011

Military-Civil Partnership Shines in Helmand, Diplomat Says

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1, 2011 – The senior U.S. civilian representative in Afghanistan today described as “rich” and “complex” the military-civilian partnership he and others say has brought great progress to the country’s southwest region.

The State Department’s J. Paul Reid, who is located with the U.S. 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, and Michael O’Neill, the senior British civilian representative in the area, spoke to the Pentagon press corps via video teleconference about dramatic changes in Helmand province and surrounding areas.

“Anyone who wants to create a model of best practices should come here to Helmand,” Reid said of the partnership that includes U.S., British, Danish, Estonian and Afghan forces alongside the State Department and other international civilian agencies.

“We work hand-in-glove,” O’Neill agreed. “And the areas of the best progress are where communications and coordination are the closest. Teamwork is absolutely essential.”

Even people in Afghanistan have been unaware of how much things have changed in Helmand since U.S. and British Marines pushed out the Taliban and secured the area, Reid and O’Neill said. Only a few years ago, they said, Helmand was under harsh Taliban rule without government services, medical care or roads, and girls weren’t permitted to attend school.

Today, through the work of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, Helmand has a network of paved roads that make a loop through the region and extend to the Iranian border, allowing commerce to thrive and making it harder for insurgents to plant roadside bombs, they said.

Poppies -- the root of the illegal heroin trade -- are being replaced with high-value alfalfa and other crops, they said, and irrigation systems are improving agriculture.

Helmand’s residents are enjoying a closer relationship with the national government in Kabul, which has improved services and sent numerous judges, prosecutors, teachers and other public servants to the province. There are now 133 schools in Helmand, the officials said, and 20,000 of 90,000 students are girls, they said. Helmand’s elected representatives include 38 women.

“We’re in a better place today than we’ve ever been in,” Reid said.

As security improves, they said, the emphasis now is on training and bringing in foreign investments. The World Bank, United Nations, and Asia Development Bank were among the participants in a recent international donors conference, the officials said, which included two days of seminars on investment needs in construction of dams, canals, roads and other projects.

The Afghans also have made great strides toward self governance, Reid said. “We’ve moved from doing these things for them to making it possible for them to do it themselves,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest threat to sustained progress in the area is government corruption, the pair said. “It’s definitely a serious impediment to foreign investment,” Reid said, adding that he considers it the biggest obstacle to private investment in Afghanistan.

ISAF workers have been working to reduce corruption, but “ultimately, it’s a cultural shift that will have to go on” as Afghans increasingly work with the international community, Reid said.

The Afghan government will make an important showing as the sole host of the upcoming 3rd Bonn Conference on International Development Policy in Germany, O’Neill said. The conference, he said, will set the stage for other major venues for potential investment in Afghanistan, such as the NATO summit to be held in Chicago in May.

“We look to this conference to demonstrate, once again, how Afghanistan is taking control of its own destiny,” Reid said.

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