Threats holding back reconstruction in Afghanistan

PANJWAYI, Afghanistan (AFP) — Taliban attacks against the state and its symbols have left thousands dead in Afghanistan and are holding back plans to develop the country from the ruins of war, meaning much more international aid is spent on security than reconstruction.

In Kandahar province the threat from Taliban-linked militants cannot be underestimated, especially when foreign troops are present, like the Canadian soldiers guarding a road project in Panjwayi.

Work on a section of the road being constructed in hot and unstable southern Afghanistan was halted when a suspicious package was spotted.

“A package was dropped where both Canadian and Afghan soldiers work with locals,” said Captain Eghtedar Manouchehri, commander of a Canadian base nearby.

“It prevented the work today because we saw very suspicious activity.”

In the end, it turned out to be nothing more than an ordinary bundle.

But the troops cannot be too careful with Taliban militants fashioning various forms of improvised explosives to use in their battle against the Afghan government and nearly 70,000 international soldiers supporting it.

It was the first time since the start of the project in mid-February that work was halted on the 6.5-kilometre (four-mile) section of road outside the hamlet of Bazaar-i-Panjwayi, said project director Captain Pascal Blanchette.

There have, however, been other incidents at the project 40 kilometres west of the city of Kandahar, one of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan.

“We have already been fired on once and we found knives on workers, which is not allowed,” Blanchette said.

But the work always went ahead. “And it will continue,” he said.

The construction, expected to cost 4.5 millions dollars — making it the largest development project undertaken by the Canadian military in Afghanistan, should be completed in October.

It might take a bit longer, said Blanchette, insisting that it must be done by manual labour rather than with machines to create the maximum number of jobs and pass on basic skills so locals can build their own roads in future.

The labourers are paid 20 percent more than local wages: 300 afghani (six dollars) a day as opposed to 250.

Besides providing income for 350 families, soon to rise to 450, the wages should be able to persuade men not to take up part-time work with the Taliban or drug traffickers.

Panjwayi does not see the same level of Taliban influence as it once did after a massive NATO operation, primarily involving Canadians, in 2006, said Warrant Officer John Beddaws.

NATO commanders reported at the time that around 1,000 Taliban were killed in what they said amounted to the Taliban’s biggest defeat since they were driven from government in late 2001.

The charming town of Bazaar-i-Panjwayi, flanked by hills, does busy trade and has a new school recently built by Canadian soldiers. Near the houses of traditional mudbrick are fields of vegetables and grapevines, and pastures in which sheep graze.

A little further on are cannabis and opium crops, extending for dozens of hectares (acres).

Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, most of it from the southern provinces.

To try to turn the region away from this illegal crop the Canadians have announced the construction of a 4.5 kilometre stretch of road to link the neighbouring district of Zhari to the main highway running through the south.

The Taliban ruled this country with an iron fist from 1996 until they were removed in 2001 in a US-led invasion for harbouring Al-Qaeda.

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