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Mazar-e-Sharif
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Nelvin Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune

were built; none was rehabbed. Poor contractor performance and security problems were key reasons for the shortfall, the GAO said.

Many Afghans remain frustrated because reconstruction has had little impact on their lives. Warlords still hold sway in the provinces, they say. And security is becoming a concern again because of renewed insurgent fighting in southern and eastern provinces and the recent emergence of al-Qaeda-style suicide bomb attacks and roadside bombs.

Nonetheless, the people of Afghanistan express gratitude for four years of relative peace after three decades of horrific war. And they express pride over September balloting that led to the country's first freely elected parliament since 1973.

Mazar-e-Sharif is in northern Afghanistan, 35 miles from Uzbekistan and close also to the borders of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. It is comprised of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Hazaras, who have a Mongol ancestry.

The city's name, which means "Tomb of the Saint," is derived from the blue-tiled shrine at its heart. It is a sacred Islamic site, especially for Shiites, as it marks the tomb of Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam's fourth caliph.

The land around Mazar supports cotton, grain and fruit. Manufacturing consists primarily of Turkmen carpets, silks and cotton fabric.

But it probably is most familiar to Americans as the place were Californian John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, was discovered after a deadly prison revolt waged by captured Taliban fighters here at the Northern Alliance's Qalai Jangi fort in December 2001.

What is less known to Americans is that it is the place where Mohd Ashraf Ramazan, a popular Hazara candidate for parliament was murdered while votes were still being counted in September.

By Marcus Stern and Ahmad Shuja
Copley News Service

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- This Central Asian city, with its water wells, donkey carts and horse carriages, provides a vivid illustration of why, after four years and $4 billion, reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have fallen far short of established goals.

The mixed record is a testament to the fact that computers, satellites and money cannot in themselves instantly transform an impoverished, pre-industrial, tribal society into a showcase of nascent democracy and free enterprise. It also is a sober reminder that the well-meaning international experts guiding reconstruction here don't have a reliable handbook from which to work.

For the United States, there is little choice but to continue trying to find the right formula.

Under President Bush, the United States has proven that it can militarily overwhelm countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has yet to win the peace in either country. That goal is vital for Bush to realize his foreign policy objective of spreading democracy to the Middle East, Central Asia and any corner of the globe where terrorism might otherwise flourish.

To that end, the administration is channeling billions of dollars to a burgeoning army of contractors submitting creative proposals with multi-million dollar price tags. Lack of a dependable handbook or concrete ways of measuring progress isn't slowing the spending. But progress isn't keeping pace. Construction, just one element of the nation-building being attempted here, has fallen far behind schedule. For instance, the United States in 2004 budgeted to build or renovate 289 schools. U.S. contractors built eight and refurbished 77, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Likewise, the U.S. government budgeted to build or rehab 253 health clinics in Afghanistan. Eight

His murder, which led to massive street protests here and in Kabul, has become a symbol for those who believe democracy has a long way to go in Afghanistan, including here in the northern province of Balkh<cq>.

"He was driving to the vote-counting station as he did every day," recalled Mohammed Sardar Saeedi, a spokesman for the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, which was Ramazan's party. "That day, he didn't notice men jumping from a white Corolla. They fired their Kalashnikovs, killing him and one of his campaign workers, and wounding the driver."

Saeedi, like many in Mazar, is emphatic when asked who was behind the deadly ambush: Atta Mohammed Noor, the governor of Balkh.

Atta<cq> had fought at the side of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the nationally venerated Tajik commander known as the Lion of Panjshir. His association with Massoud and control of the 7th Corps of the Northern Alliance at the time of the Taliban's defeat paved the way for Atta to dominate the Balkh Province. Afghan President Hamid Karzai eventually legitimized Atta's power by appointing him governor, a bow to the reality of Atta's stranglehold over the province. One of Atta's first steps was to disarm the province.

"There are no other armed men or militia today in Mazar except for Governor Atta's men," said a carpet vendor who is not being identified because of the risk of retaliation. "He has deployed his men in the national army and the police force, through which he controls the province and the people."

Many in Mazar say Atta is seizing property improperly and fostering a culture of corruption. They commonly refer to him as a warlord and insist he is standing in the way of democracy in Balkh.

"Bribery in the province has reached its peak," said the carpet vendor. "All the government offices need to be bribed to work for the people. Even if you go to pay your electricity bill, you will have to pay


something extra to make sure they accept it. During the Taliban, the low-ranked officials used to take bribes but not the high-ranked officials. Now, even high-ranked officials are accepting bribes."

Shortly after dark, Atta's motorcade whooshes into the horseshoe driveway of his "unofficial office." He breezes into a conference room inside, slipping out of his coat without breaking stride. A closely trailing aide catches as it drops from Atta's shoulders.

The governor is cordial but all business. He points with obvious pride to a photo on the wall of him standing beside Massoud during the days of jihad. In the picture, Atta has a bushy beard and the look of a fierce Afghan warrior.

In his chair, he is nattily dressed in an expensive, well-tailored Western suit. His hair is closely cropped, and his beard is tightly trimmed. He has a ready answer for why Mazar is relatively peaceful today.

"The most important thing is I have the support of the people," he says. "I also have the support of the international community and the central government. I have disarmed all the local militias."

He describes the provincial balloting in September as safe and orderly, stressing the participation of women, the existence of 45 registered political parties and the distribution of 50 newspapers within the province.

"Democracy is thriving in Balkh," he declares. When asked about the murder of Ramazan while ballots were being counted, Atta denies involvement, instead blaming it on two other unlikely suspects: Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara and leader in Ramazan's own political party; and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek commander.

Atta says there are few property disputes in the province, and when they occur the courts have free reign to decide the cases. He says relations between the provincial leaders nationwide and the central government are excellent.

"If there were tensions between the central government and the governors there would be anarchy," he said.

When asked whether he or Karzai was the ultimate authority in Balkh Province, Atta replies with a wry smile: "Definitely, it is Mr. Karzai. He is the president of all Afghanistan."

MSI is an overseas-development contractor based on five barges and two houseboats in a marina on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. With about $9.2 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), MSI has overseen the construction of 22 judicial facilities in Afghanistan and the renovation of four others. Under an extension of its USAID contract, it is overseeing the construction of more buildings.

Here in Mazar, MSI renovated the courthouse and constructed a building that houses the prosecutor's office.

At the courthouse, Shams-ur-Rahman Shams, the head judge, expressed gratitude to MSI for the renovation. Benches and tables bear MSI stickers.

"There has been tremendous progress in the judicial system, not just here in the center of the province but also in the outlying areas," said Shams. "Afghanistan has a general problem with security, but here in the Balkh Province, the law has an upper hand now."

Another U.S. contractor, Checchi and Company Consulting Inc., has been hired to improve the administration of justice in Afghanistan. The Balkh court is the site of a pilot program where computers are being introduced to assist in case management. So far, 12 stand-alone computers have been purchased and 30 people have been trained in basic use of the machines. The computers haven't been installed in the courthouse yet, but Checchi officials say they expect to do so soon.

It's likely to be a long time before computers replace the court's reliance on paper records and ledgers, they concede. So far, 12 stand-alone computers have been purchased and 30 people have been trained in basi

use of the machines. The computers haven't been installed in the courthouse yet, but Checchi officials say they expect to do so soon.

It's likely to be a long time before computers replace the court's reliance on paper records and ledgers, they concede.

Nearby, MSI has built a new home for the provincial prosecutor's office to share with locally based officials of the justice ministry. It is a two-story, sea-green building with a plaque at the entrance saying it is a gift of the American people through USAID.

Inside, reviews of the building are as cold as its unheated interior.

"MSI did not take into consideration our need for a storeroom in which we could store our records and our firewood and our broken furniture until it can be repaired," said head prosecutor Mohammed Tahir. "Some of our records have to be stored outside in the rain and snow.

"There are not enough rooms and the rooms are too small. Three directorates share office space in a building that would otherwise barely suffice one."

The court's head administrative official said the building has "serious problems" with plumbing, electricity, space and heat. He walked across the hall from where he and seven subordinates share a small room.

He pointed to a crumbling corner in the bathroom ceiling where a pipe is broken and another corner of the ceiling mottled with black mold in the two-month-old building. Once the bathroom light was turned on, the switch would not turn it off. People in the building were wearing coats or multiple layers of clothing.

"The only good thing is, that for the past 25 years we didn't have a government office specifically for the prosecutor and now we do," said the head administrator. "But it, too, is defective."

Ahmad Shuja is a Copley News Service intern born in Kabul but currently living and going to school in Quetta, Pakistan.