(Lieutenant ________, from over in intel, has been hounding me about posting on the blog. I had been sitting on this post out of fear that it's too dejected or whiny, but upon re-reading it the problem isn't so much that as that it's REALLY far in the weeds on Afghan governance policies. Consider yourself warned).
I met a group of European medical students when I was at Victoria Falls, back in March. They had just spent a semester interning at rural Zambian hospitals as part of their medical education, and were doing some sightseeing before heading home. I had asked them what life was like in rural Zambia ("medically speaking, it's a little grim "), and they in turn asked me it was like living in Southwest Afghanistan.
"I really like it, actually," I told them. "Though to be honest, sometimes it's hard to maintain any semblance of hope for the future."
The med students looked at each other. "We've been working in rural African hospitals," one said. "We know all about the eradication of hope."
I arrived back in Farah last week. The PRT is now over eight months into a nine-month deployment, and the light at the end of the tunnel is clearly visible; my team is counting the days until they can leave. Their mindset is infectious: PRT Farah is done. Commander Killjoy is too disciplined to allow himself to slip from being mission-focused and is still driving hard on the programs we have going, but everyone else has begun the process of cleaning and packing and mentally checking out. Killjoy and company will be gone shortly hereafter, and I cannot help but be jealous at their departure.
I came back from my previous R&Rs refreshed and ready to get back to work, but this time has been different: I feel like I'm treading water, and my patience is worn thin. It is time for me to leave.
We swung by the Provincial Council last week. The Council is the only democratically-elected institution in the province, and every single other person in the provincial administration -- the Governor, the Provincial Ministers of Education and Health and Finance and Economy and everything else, all the way down to the District Sub-Governors -- are chosen by Kabul.
The equivalent of this system would be if the Governor of, say, Texas, were chosen by the President of the United States instead of by the people of Texas. The President or someone else in Washington would also get to choose all of the State's Gubernatorial cabinet-type positions covering everything functional within the State -- tax collection, school administration, road construction and maintenance, policing and law enforcement, judicial implementation including the penal system, the whole shebang. Washington's influence in this hypothetical extends all the way to the county level, with county administrators chosen by Washington, albeit with some consultation from the Governor.
In this hypothetical, if the good people of Texas do not like their Governor or one of their administrators, they have no means of getting rid of him. "Can you imagine if we tried that in the States?" I asked my language training classmates. "There would be riots," one responded.
And yet, this is the arrangement written into the Constitution of Afghanistan.
The people don't get to elect anyone in their Province, with the exception of the Provincial Council -- nine people directly elected to act as the "people's representatives" to the Government of Farah. Beyond that vague job description -- "be the people's representatives" -- they have little authority and are vested with neither budget nor actual legal authority of any kind. The position itself carries some degree of respect, though in the past the Council has complained vociferously of their lack of power and has threatened to quit over it. We meet with them weekly.
"We need fuel for the generator," the President told us during this visit. "You can tell how hot it is in here -- we don't have enough gas to run the generator to get the air conditioners going enough to cool the place down."
"Who provides your operating budget from Kabul?" I asked. "Is it the Independent Directorate of Local Governance? Or do you have some sort of special set aside from the President's Office? How does your money work?"
The Embassy has sent a directive to the field that our primary focus should be on budgeting -- on getting the Afghans to plan for and manage their own money. But the Afghan budgetary system is opaque at best, and the vast majority of Farah's bureaucrats have no idea how to request money from Kabul. The problem is that the province is not budgetary unit; there is no "provincial budget." If the province needs money for something, it's up to the director of the relevant Provincial Department to request money from Kabul for it. It would be great if it worked, but it doesn't: it's a ridiculous way to run a country.
The system works ok for cut and dried things -- if you need a school, for example, you'd go through the Education Department -- but it seems to happen frequently that certain Provincial operating costs (including but not limited to the purchasing of fuel for the Provincial Council's generators) get lost in the shuffle, with no one really knowing who should be paying for it. And since the U.S. Government hands out money hand over fist (16 million spent in Farah by this PRT; about 28 million by the PRT before it), bureaucrats on the whole would rather work through us than figure out how to get money from their own system.
"We don't get a budget," the Provincial Council president told me. "Kabul doesn't give us anything. You need to give us fuel so we can work."
"You have to have an operating budget of some sort," I said. I looked at Killjoy. "Right? Surely they have to." And again turning to the Provincial Council Chief, I asked -- "Who on the Council is in charge of requesting the money from Kabul? Who does your paperwork?"
To further complicate the budget issue, in order to request money, you have to respond to a large-scale budgetary data call put out by Kabul that must be completed three years in advance of the budget being crafted, a system that works (albeit with some hiccups) in developed nations but is inconceivable in Farah. Moreover, data is welcome from the Province, but is neither mandatory nor solicited; it's up to Kabul to figure out what is needed, and Provincial input is optional and not really asked for.
("Who on EARTH designed this system?" I asked the Embassy budgeting and finance specialist, a plucky woman from the Department of Treasury who had once written Arkansas's State budget. "It's not QUITE as bad as it seems," she said optimistically. "Well, kind of, at least").
"We don't get a budget," the Provincial Council president reiterated. "And it's hot in here."
Killjoy took a different approach. "Are you getting hooked up to the city power any time soon?" he asked. "If you're getting hooked up to city power, we can maybe see about getting you fuel until that happens."
"City power only works at night," the president replied. "Listen, we don't need much -- about 300 liters a month. That's nothing! We can't work in an office that's this hot."
Getting the Afghan Government to function as it should, with money flowing from the appropriate places to fulfill existing budget gaps, is one of the primary goals of the PRT. The act of connecting the budget people in Kabul, who should ostensibly have money for the Provincial Council, with the Council themselves is an act in Making Bureaucracy Function. But getting money from Kabul is a long and annoying process, and the PRT is seen as a gigantic, camouflage-swathed ATM. It feels like we've had this discussion in almost every meeting I have ever attended.
I started to launch into my sustainability shpiel, about how we can't just give away fuel if there's no plan in place for the Afghan government to take over and all of that. "It's not sustainable," I said. But I found that I no longer had the will to fight and couldn't bring myself to continue. We've been through this, a thousand times with a thousand different people. It just seemed so hopeless.
I focused on the plate of melon they had placed in front of me and let Killjoy talk.