To read a classified US document on Dr Ahmadzai, a health director in Paktia province, you might think he was a poorly motivated bureaucrat who rarely bothers to leave his office.
But a closer look at the report – one of 75,000 secret US war files released by WikiLeaks – suggests the doctor’s apathy was partly the fault of the aid officials who failed to consult him.
The file reflects the central problem afflicting a nine-year reconstruction effort in Afghanistan: the west has spent billions on poorly co-ordinated projects that have done little to bolster the Afghan state.
The document is one of dozens of snapshots of development work filed in 2007 that underline the scale of the challenge the Obama administration faces in trying to defeat insurgents by forging a social contract between an often absent government and a sceptical Afghan public.
Nato allies agreed at a conference in Kabul last week to raise the proportion of assistance that flows through the Afghan state to 50 per cent, from a current 20 per cent, partly at the urging of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.
The Afghan government says that 77 per cent of the $29bn (€22bn, £19bn) in aid ploughed into the country since 2001 has been disbursed on projects with little or no input from Afghan officials.
Concerns over corruption have dominated debate on Afghan aid, but the documents reveal the complexities of reforming an international effort beset by a lack of consultation and duplication of effort.
The officer who describes Dr Ahmadzai’s apathy cannot hide his exasperation at a situation where a non-governmental agency funded by USAID, the US government development arm, appeared to bypass the state. “He does not perceive to have the power to make changes or decisions that should be made at his level and this may be why he stays in his office all day long,” the official wrote. “In this culture, if you control the money, you have the power.”
Other reports highlight how US officers must struggle to push forward the state-building project in a complex environment of tribal conflicts, land disputes, adversarial officialdom and entrenched graft.
One document reflects how US officers can be sucked into almost Machiavellian dealings as they become actors in the town-hall rivalries playing out in government offices far from Kabul.
US officials complained to one governor that his director of irrigation had failed to submit a proposal for four new dams to the Ministry of Electricity and Water in Kabul, putting the project at risk. The report says: “Governor going to push the issue, get them approved, then fire the director of irrigation.”
The Americans’ bemusement at tactics employed by their Afghan counterparts shines through the military jargon. In late 2006, a contractor named Sylab called a US lieutenant to say he had been arrested by the police on the governor’s orders.
“His intentions were to scare Sylab into performing quality work,” the report says. “Although the governor’s intentions may be good, they are perhaps a bit heavy-handed.”
The documents lay bare the depths of US dismay at Afghanistan’s lack of capacity. A state department official delivered this verdict on an agricultural officer who refused to accept an offer of cement for a water project in return for local labour: “Lacks competency in project organisation and co-ordination”.
Another author does not hide his frustration at an unproductive project discussion with officials: “It quickly became evident that the provincial leadership still does not quite have the concept of what needs to be done at the meetings.”
The picture is not uniformly negative – there are reports of constructive encounters with officials and elders. One file enthuses over the commitment of local teachers, another relates a meeting where businessmen in Ghazni province suggest opening a commercial bank – even if it seems to be a pipe-dream. Another document praises a regional volleyball tournament as an “excellent event” and a good opportunity to conduct “psyops” – psychological operations – to win over local people.
The corrosive impact of petty corruption is also clear. In one account, interpreters working for the US extort $500 from a building contractor by charging a “tax” on each foot of timber he used. “Also, they asked supervisor to report missing workers present so they would get their wages, then they could split the money,” a report says.
But it is the helter-skelter approach by the US military, USAID and other donors that is most striking. “A lot of money is being approved for projects that are not on the governors’ priority list,” says another dispatch from Paktia province. “There are too many hands in the pie all working on their own agendas ... and the waters are getting real muddy.”