Top civilian NATO official in Afghan province says government control of key city expanding

By Anne Flaherty, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Top civilian sees progress in southern Afghan city

WASHINGTON — The government of Afghanistan’s Helmand province is struggling to its feet eight months after NATO troops stormed a key Taliban stronghold there, a top civilian official said Tuesday.

Lindy Cameron, the UK’s senior representative in southern Afghanistan and head of NATO’s civil-military mission in Helmand, said she has seen significant progress in the past six months and expects to see a strong and capable provincial government by year’s end.

“It will still be a shift,” she said of the months to come. “It won’t be a dramatic change, I think. But the indicators are good.”

Cameron’s assessment, provided to Pentagon reporters, was the most optimistic yet since a Marine-led force seized control of the farming town of Marjah in February. The offensive was seen as a first test of President Barack Obama’s new war strategy that involved sending tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.

Despite the early military victory in Marjah, the process of setting up a district government lagged woefully behind for months with the population reluctant to support their new civilian leaders.

Cameron said she thinks local attitudes are changing, as the government provides more services and signals that it is ready to take on more responsibility.

For example, she said, the Afghans and NATO are considering whether Marjah is ready to hold elections for a new district community council.

“What we’ve seen in other districts is that it’s that kind of thing that provides a turning point for a real sense of popular engagement with the government,” Cameron said.

She said that in Nad-e-Ali district just north of Marjah, governance had been minimal when she visited last July.

But “now what you see is a corridor of offices with different names of ministries on them, where the representatives of those ministries aren’t just on the payroll but are actually in Nad-e-Ali most of the time,” she said.

Cameron said she wasn’t disheartened that more progress hadn’t been made more quickly, considering that Afghanistan is among the poorest developing nations in the world and that the Taliban had a firm grip in Marjah until only recently.

“We have to be realistic about our expectations . . . .. It’s not the kind of thing that is built overnight,” she said.

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