NEWS | Oct. 6, 2010

Helmand province sees improvements

By Cheryl Pellerin , Armed Forces Press Service


An Afghan man shows Afghan National Police officers his identification during a Nawa Community Council election near Forward Operating Base Jaker, Helmand province, Afghanistan, June 29, 2010. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael P. Lyons)

WASHINGTON (Oct. 5, 2010) — Britain’s senior representative in southern Afghanistan said today that she sees “significant progress” in local governments, justice institutions and economic indicators in the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.

Lindy Cameron, head of mission for the British-led Helmand provincial reconstruction team, a multinational civilian-military collaboration, briefed Pentagon reporters during a video news conference from her offices in Lashkar Gah.

“I’m quietly optimistic that what we’re seeing is a shift in perception,” she said, “both about the security situation but also about the capability of their government here in central Helmand and fundamentally also their ability to take over in the long run.”

Cameron has a team of about 100 military and civilian staff members, part of a broader 300-person team that includes British military stabilization support teams and U.S. civil affairs teams that support Helmand provincial Gov. Mohammad Golab Mangal.

Reconstruction team staff is supplied by the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark and Estonia.

“I have civil and military capacity; I have specialist engineers; [and] I have a whole range of specialist skills in education, health, reconstruction and the rule of law, policing,” Cameron said. “Having a really large and capable provincial reconstruction team here … [gives] me the ability to support the government across the full range of what it does, but also allows me to help push out support to build capacity in the districts as well.”

Since her first visit to Lashkar Gah in June 2006, Cameron said, the once-isolated provincial capital has seen the opening of the first civilian airport, built by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K. Department for International Development, as well as a government that’s much more in control of the province and a governor who’s been in charge for two and a half years.

“It’s still a pretty challenging area to work in, both for the government as well as the security forces,” she said. “But I think it is one where we’ve seen a lot of improvement and, very importantly, where the people of Helmand feel as if they live in an area which is much more under the control of the government and its security forces and where life is beginning to look rather better for them.”

The local bazaar is bustling, she added, meaning that people are beginning to more consistently increase their incomes. “They’re able to be less dependent on poppy farming and have a larger number of alternative livelihoods,” Cameron said.

Helmand used to be the agricultural bread basket of Afghanistan, according to the reconstruction team’s website, but opium production expanded during the period of Taliban rule. The Food Zone Program, an effort Mangal promotes, makes it illegal to grow poppy in Afghanistan but allows farmers to register to receive fruit and vegetable seeds to grow instead.

“Forty thousand farmers should see themselves getting wheat seed or vegetable seeds and some fertilizer this year to help them do something apart from growing poppy,” Cameron said.

The team also is opening an industrial park for agriculture next to Bost Airfield in Helmand to let farmers sell their products and make more money by opening bigger businesses, Cameron said.

One of the most important recent examples of progress, Cameron said, was a relatively quiet election in the province.

“There were quite a large number of small-scale security incidents, but no significant ones,” she said. “And there wasn’t a shot fired within six kilometers of the district center here in Lashkar Gah.”

By the end of 2010, Cameron said, she expects to see a “pretty strong provincial government that is pretty capable across the board.” The local population will witness an increasing depth of government services, she added, including education, and a government that increasingly looks to the long term for taking over control of the province and its future.

“I sat in the back of a provincial coordination center during Election Day and realized that if I walked out the door, frankly, nothing much would have changed,” she said. “That gives me real confidence that in five years’ time, during the next parliamentary elections … the governor, the provincial chief of police, the corps commander and the head of the [National Directorate of Security] will be able to run their own election by themselves without our support, as opposed to running it with our support as they did this time.”