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PRT chief on the plan for Helmand reconstruction

Michael O'Neill, Head of Mission for the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), speaks to Tristan Kelly in Lashkar Gah about the draw down due to complete by 2015.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Michael O'Neill, Head of Mission for the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team [Picture: Steve Dock, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Michael O'Neill

TK: What are the priorities for the Helmand Plan?

MO: One of the main aims of the PRT is to help deliver the Helmand Plan which is a joint strategy and approach over the next four years among NATO countries and the Government of Afghanistan - the plan was signed off by Helmand Governor Mangal - for development.

The first priority for the Helmand Plan is governance, which is about helping the Afghans set up and strengthen provincial and district level systems of governance.

A lot of our work, reflected in the Helmand Plan, is about working with Afghan officials, going out and mentoring and training the council and the line ministry officials in basic functions; how to do plans and budget and deliver them.

Rule of law is the next priority and that is about getting more judges and prosecutors deployed, largely in Lashkar Gah but also out in the districts.

Thirdly, there is social and economic development which covers health, education, agriculture and infrastructure like roads, irrigation and power.

The key theme of the Helmand Plan is about not doing stuff ourselves but how we can help the Afghans to do it.

I think there is a close parallel between what we are doing in terms of governance and the justice system with what Task Force Helmand are doing on partnering and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF], with the balance increasingly shifting to the Afghans.

TK: So how is the plan going?

MO: I think it is going well; there has been good progress in Helmand, especially in central Helmand, particularly in the last 18 to 24 months, on the foundation stone which is improved security and freedom of movement, and that again comes back to what ISAF has been doing with the ANSF.

So good progress, but quite a lot still to do.

The key test now, in the final two or three years that we are here is making the structures that now exist, but are still fairly rudimentary and fragile, stronger and more durable so that as we start to pull out gradually over the next three years the Afghan system will be able to take the strain.

TK: How can we be confident that money is not being wasted through corruption?

MO: I would say two things: the first is that you can see a lot of tangible results for the investment in terms of more schools, more clinics, more kids in school.

There are hundreds of kilometres of new roads that the UK and US have funded. There are real fruits of the investment on show. The other point is we work very hard, both here and also at national level, to monitor the expenditure, to put in all the checks and balances that we can.

On occasion, if we find what appears to be impropriety or corruption, we will investigate that and get the Afghan authorities on to it. All the Department for International Development [DFID] money here is independently audited so there are those checks in addition to the monitoring we do day-to-day.

TK: When we stop combat operations will attention shift away from Afghanistan and development there stall?

MO: David Cameron, Barack Obama and other leaders have said that we are not going to repeat the mistake of walking away that we made back in the ’90s.

We saw the consequences of that in terms of international terrorism. We are not going to repeat that mistake but there will be a shift and there should be a shift, because I think people in Britain and people in the US and Afghans want to see that.

They don’t want to see large numbers of foreign troops and all of us in the PRT here indefinitely, they want to be able to run their own affairs and I think that is what British people want too.

But there will still be assistance, there will be a continued DFID programme and it will work the way it does in most developing countries.

TK: How important is Governor Mangal’s leadership in Helmand?

MO: His leadership has been extremely important. In many key areas of work such as counter-narcotics or roads, or political outreach in northern Helmand, he has really set a strong agenda.

But in any political system politicians are going to move on. And to see if the system is really healthy and really functioning that is one of the tests.

I think from our perspective we will work with Mangal as long as he is provincial governor and if somebody else comes in we will try and work with them.

But we will also work with the provincial council, district governor and district councils. So we have got to be engaging with all the different bits of the system.

TK: What work has been done to develop the civil service in Helmand?

MO: It is a huge part of the work for all the teams in the PRT. We have people from our development team, for example, working very closely with the provincial education ministry and provincial health department and it is about helping them make their own systems work.

We help organise and fund training packages for prosecutors and judges and target individuals for training.

We have had people from our governance team travelling around each of the districts with Afghan officials, putting on training programmes to show them how to design and put together a district development plan with a budget, so that can get sent up to Kabul and signed off and the money can then start flowing down.

TK: How important is private investment and attracting back expat Helmandis?

MO: Hugely important. Getting the private sector moving really is fundamental. People want jobs and ultimately they are not going to come from international donors or from the Afghan Government. They will come from the private sector.

We have two people here working full time on private sector development, both with a private sector background. They are working with local businesses, the Helmand Business Association for example, and we are funding the development of an agribusiness park.

Also, we are trying to attract multinationals and external investors and that is beginning to happen. It’s early days, but as we start to draw down and spend less money here, we also need the private sector to step up.

TK: Will the better security attract Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and will this be a help or a hindrance to Afghan independence from aid?

MO: I spent three years working in Sudan and I think that in any country NGOs have got to watch out for inadvertently creating a dependency culture.

NGOs should have an exit strategy and do themselves out of business. Nonetheless there is plenty of valuable work that NGOs can do.

We have an NGO presence here already in a small degree - the hospital in Lashkar Gah is run by Medecins Sans Frontieres. We would like to see more of that and a greater presence of international organisations, for example the United Nations.

We would like Afghanistan in three to five years’ time to look more and more like other developing countries, including those that have suffered from decades of conflict, where you would have international assistance but delivered and run by a host government and host authorities.

TK: How important is the education and empowerment of women here?

MO: That is a complex area and brings sensitivities with it. Obviously the role of women in this society, like anywhere else, is hugely important.

I’d say the picture varies quite a lot across the province. The provincial council of 15 elected people includes four women and they are pretty vociferous and active on the council. In Gereshk you have five women on the district council.

Maybe 25 per cent of the total number of kids in school in Helmand now are girls. But, of those, 90 per cent are in Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, which I think reflects the fact that these are the two big urban centres and are probably relatively more liberal than other more remote parts of the province.

There are lots of powerful reasons why we should be trying to support women’s issues in certain respects, for example maternal mortality is a huge killer in Afghanistan.

But at the same time I think it would be wrong for us to come in and try and impose on a conservative rural society a completely different set of values. So we are trying to judge those things and tread carefully but at the same time trying to do some of the things that need to be done.

TK: What end state is the PRT working towards for 2015?

MO: To leave things in a state where the institutions are sufficiently developed where the Afghans are able to run effective systems of government, development and justice and stimulate economic opportunity.

They will still get international assistance, in similar ways that the ANSF will, but they will be running things themselves and above all the Afghan Government will be responding to and providing for the needs that ordinary people have.

This article is taken from the October 2011 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 17 October 2011