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A high-stakes bid for Afghan hearts

The US has pledged more than $300 million in development over the next year in Helmand Province. Success could sway farmers at the center of both the insurgency and the opium trade.

US Marine Sgt. Monica Perez helps Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss put on a scarf before heading out on patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The two are members of a team built to engage with local women.

Julie Jacobson/ap

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First came the Marines, then came the promises. Over the next year, the US is pledging an economic makeover costing more than $300 million for Afghanistan's war-torn Helmand Province.

But Afghans have grown cynical about foreign talk of development. Just as the Marines had to prove they could retake territory with minimal civilian casualties – which they did in an offensive in the southern province during the summer – the development community has a more difficult point to prove to ordinary Afghans: Siding with the government brings prosperity.

The American foreign assistance arm, USAID, says that within 12 months Helmand residents will see: a doubling of local hydropower, wheat seeds for more than 35,000 farmers, saplings for 1,000 hectares of orchards and vineyards, a new courthouse, new district police substations, jobs for 166,000 men fixing roads and irrigation ditches, and a new road linking the capital to the national ring road. The biggest goodie of all: an industrial park with space for agricultural factories and an airstrip.

If it sounds like a last-ditch effort, it is. Success would win over the farmers in the heartland of the insurgency and at the center of poppy cultivation, and demonstrate a formula for holding ground in Afghanistan. Failure – given the high-profile nature of this mission – could lose Afghans for good and dishearten Western publics about the prospects of the war.


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