May 21, 2010 / 9:45 AM / in 9 years

INTERVIEW - U.S. aid group ready to help rebuild restive Pakistan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani army offensives against the Taliban are clearing the way for the resumption of reconstruction and development in former hotspots, and increasing the chances for stability, a top American aid official said.

Pakistani soldiers are seen keeping guard on side of a road in Swat in this April 23, 2010 file photo. Pakistani army offensives against the Taliban are clearing the way for the resumption of reconstruction and development in former hotspots, and increasing the chances for stability, a top American aid official said. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/Files

Washington sees the Islamabad government as a key partner in the fight against militancy and hopes aid programmes will help the state win wider public support in the war.

Pakistan says security crackdowns have severely weakened al Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgents. But analysts say long-term success depends on steady services, job creation and industrial development, especially in restive areas such as the northwest.

Edward Birgells, regional director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for Pakistan’s northwest, along the Afghan border, is cautiously optimistic.

There is a “potential opening” to advance programmes delayed by violence, he said. USAID would focus on quick-impact activities like clearing irrigation systems and providing tools to farmers in damaged areas, for now.

“What we want to do, as quickly as we can, is basically get these places back the way they were before the war. Once we do that we can start development,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“You can’t get people’s attention on development too much when they have no water, they have no electricity, schools are broken down. No health facilities.”

AGRICULTURAL OFFENSIVE

The U.S. government had allocated $750 million to spend in the northwestern ethnic Pashtun tribal areas but renewed Taliban violence halted the programme with only $150 million spent.

The strategy now is to build on security gains with an agricultural offensive designed to help get the population firmly on the side of a government which has become unpopular because of crippling power cuts and a troubled economy.

“We are enthusiastic. We are planning on spending a lot of money in the next six months or a year,” said Birgells.

“In the next two or three weeks we are going to start these programmes big time, principally in terms of the water supply and the electricity.”

Aid officials are banking on an array of projects to turn the tide: dairy herd improvement grants worth over $1 million, honey production schemes, artificial insemination for livestock and better marketing of oranges and grapefruits.

But Birgells cautions that plans could always fall through, as they have before.

He says one must be realistic in a highly volatile area where hundreds of Pakistanis can’t openly say they work for USAID for security reasons, well aware of the Taliban’s history of public beheadings and floggings.

Birgells says it will not be safe for Westerners to spend extended periods of time in tribal regions for at least a year, raising questions over supervision and monitoring of projects.

“Is it safe out there? These guys still want to kill me. So it’s probably not going to be safe for me to sort of run around for a long time.”

No USAID workers have been targeted and killed.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

(Editing by Robert Birsel and Jeremy Laurence)

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