Rory Stewart struggled with insurgents as a deputy governor in the coalition administration in Iraq and briefly worked with United Nations advisers in post-war Afghanistan. These days, the former British diplomat copes with resurgent Taliban forces as head of non-governmental organisation promoting the preservation and renovation of medieval buildings in Afghanistan.

Donor governments, he says, are making a mistake in concentrating aid on projects in southern Afghan provinces where the insurgency is strongest, rather than spreading funds across the impoverished country.

“You cannot deliver development to a population that does not want to work with you – and in some areas in the south we have lost the goodwill of the population,” he says. ”This cannot be regained through economic development. People cannot just be bought. The Russians invested a great deal in infrastructure, but it did not help them defeat the insurgency. Our best option is to focus on areas where we are welcome.”

The focus on aid for southern provinces comes as the US and UK put more stress on economic development and reconstruction as important elements of counter-insurgency strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Military tactics alone have proved insufficient in eliminating armed resistance.

The UK Department for International Development has allocated a fifth of its budget for the next three years to the southern province of Helmand. The US Agency for International Development has concentrated more than half its budget on Helmand and three other southern provinces, according to Leon Waskin, mission director. Afghanistan has 34 provinces.

“The conflict that we see in the south is not going to be solved by military means alone,” says Mr Waskin, arguing that increasing economic well-being will sap support for the insurgency.

But even with higher budgets, development agencies find it hard to implement projects in the south. “Throwing money doesn’t help when it is not possible to travel to monitor project implementation,” says the head of one NGO. Development groups have been forced to rely on unsupervised local workers.

The projects are easy targets for insurgents. Hundreds of Taliban fighters last month attacked the Kajaki dam in Helmand. The reconstruction of the dam, whose hydroelectric units are the main power source for the city of Kandahar, is one of the largest projects in the province, backed by USAID and DFID, but work has been halted by the fighting.

Projects in the south are less cost effective. “The costs of doing the same things are quite high,” says a senior official at one agency.

Yet Hazarajat, a central highland region and the most secure area of the country, has seen little infrastructure development

The region, once home to the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan demolished by the former Taliban government, remains focused on farming and animal husbandry. The Hazaras, who are believed to be of Turko-Mongolian origin, form a majority of the population of the region and are mainly Shia Muslims – which has in the past contributed towards their political and economic marginalisation.

Habiba Sarobi, governor of Bamiyan province and the only woman in such a position in the country, is disappointed. “[A] road is fundamental to Bamiyan,” says Ms Sarobi. “Without it, even tourism cannot develop.”

In the absence of paved roads, local farmers have difficulty marketing their produce and tourists keen to see the ruins at Bamiyan come by private plane or hire a jeep for an 11-hour drive from Kabul. A road could cut the trip by two-thirds.

A survey by the Asia Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of Hazarajat had not heard of foreign aid and cited poverty and unemployment as their biggest concerns.

The same survey showed that among the people of Afghanistan, Hazarajat residents had the highest faith in state institutions, such as the police, turned out in the largest numbers to vote and displayed some of the most liberal attitudes towards the rights of women.

Ms Sarobi and her constituents see the focus on the south almost as penalising them in favour of rebellious countrymen. “Some people might think it is a reward for bad behaviour.”

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