KABUL, Afghanistan — Nearly 300 foreign advisers, most of them Americans, work at Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, and hundreds more work in other government departments, a reliance on foreign expertise that raises doubts about the viability of the West's exit strategy.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai will announce later this month his plans for "transition" from heavy international involvement in Afghanistan's governance and security to local control. But the number of civilian advisers in the ministries suggests that either Afghans lack the ability to govern themselves or that the international community is trying to run the administration itself, more than nine years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
There's no clear plan to reduce that number.
Foreign advisers in the Interior Ministry, for example, appear to outnumber the senior Afghan officials they serve.
The Afghan government's capacity to execute plans is so lacking it will spend only half of its $1.5 billion budget for economic development projects this fiscal year, according to the Ministry of Finance — despite the desperate need for investment in education, health and other basic services.
Karzai's announcement for how the country will move to Afghan management between now and 2014 will include the names of the provinces and districts that will be the first to come under Afghan security control. The list is likely to include the provinces of Bamiyan, Panjshir, Kabul, Herat and the district capital of Helmand province, Lashkargar, all relatively safe places.
The exit strategy for the U.S.-led international coalition requires the gradual handing over of responsibility for security to Afghans, so that the bulk of the 150,000 foreign soldiers — 100,000 of whom are Americans — deployed in the country can be pulled out. International partners are currently spending about $12 billion a month in Afghanistan, about two thirds from the U.S.
While many Afghan officials believe that the work of foreign advisers is crucial to rebuilding the capacity of a government machinery that's been battered by 30 years of constant war, some believe that the quality of the international experts is mixed and they at times push priorities and programs at odds with the ministers they are supposed to serve.
"The requirement is for technical assistance, something that's need-driven, not donor-driven," said Najib Manalai, an Afghan who's the media adviser to the minister of finance, where 70 foreign advisers serve. "The need for foreign advisers is decreasing every day, but the numbers are increasing every day."
The Interior Ministry in Kabul has 282 foreign advisers working there, according to the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, which placed them in the ministry. Of the 282 advisers, 120 are contractors, costing $36 million a year, paid for by the U.S. government. The rest are made up of 119 U.S. military and U.S. government civilians, and 43 from other coalition countries.
Most of the contractors are from two controversial American firms: Dyncorp and Military Professional Resources Inc.
The Interior Minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, has six personal foreign advisers, two from the military and four civilians. Foreign advisers outnumber senior Afghan officials in the ministry, according to a presentation document prepared by the NATO mission. In some departments, the ratio is stark. The document, dated last month, shows at least 45 foreign advisers in the Interior Ministry's Logistics department, mentoring 14 Afghan officials.
"We're absolutely not run by foreigners. They don't tell us what to do," said Zemeri Bashary, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who himself has two foreign advisers. "We do need support. But that doesn't mean they are running the ministry."
Several Interior Ministry officials, serving and retired, were complimentary about the work of the foreign advisers. One mid-ranking security official, who didn't want to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, said that corruption would be "many times" greater if the foreigners weren't present.
Some Western experts who deal with the Interior Ministry said that Afghan officials there were weary of the rapid turnover of the international staff, who might serve for only six months or a year, and being told what to do by outside "experts" with a dim knowledge of Afghan conditions.
Another former senior Interior Ministry official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Afghans wanted to develop the police as a law enforcement force, but that American advisers, holding the upper hand because they also held the purse strings, pushed through training the police as a counterterrorism force instead.
"Most of these guys (foreign advisers) are doing a wonderful job," the former official added. "But the contractors are ill-disciplined and poorly supervised."
The Interior Ministry is probably the most extreme case of foreign involvement, given its responsibility for the police and other vital internal security functions. The Defense Ministry has 58 international advisers, according to the NATO mission. The Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Agriculture are likely to be among those with a heavy foreign presence. Ministries with foreign contractors also often need to have private security companies providing guards, to fulfill insurance requirements of the contracting firm.
"Many advisers work on the kind of things donors need, like strategies and reports. There's very little real thinking about what a self-sufficient Afghan government would look like," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization. "The foreign advisers are often there to solve little problems, but it's not a coherent program to get Afghanistan ready for transition."
Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the NATO mission, said the foreigners working in Afghan ministries are providing similar services as foreign military trainers provide the Afghan army. "The number of foreign advisers is crucial to ensuring Afghan-led ministerial processes by 2014," he said.
It's not just people that other nations provide Afghanistan. The World Bank estimates that the Afghan government won't be financially self-sufficient until 2023, a date other estimates push to 2025. That means that until then, the international community, primarily the U.S., will need to pay an army and police force of at least 300,000, initially costing $6 billion to $8 billion a year.
In the next fiscal year, which starts later this month, donors will provide about $1.3 billion toward the government's budget for "ordinary" expenses — primarily the salaries of government employees, according to the Ministry of Finance.
In addition, the whole $1.5 billion budget for development projects will be provided by foreign donors, which also separately spend about $4 billion a year in Afghanistan aid projects directly.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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