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A high-stakes bid for Afghan hearts

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"We made a lot of mistakes at this point and our credibility isn't very high," says David Garner, an aid expert who has worked for years in Afghanistan. "If you've got a strategy in your back pocket that you can deploy immediately and that project is grounded in agricultural realities ... then over a period of 12 months you could have a pretty significant impact in terms of getting people's attention. But the opportunities for recidivism here are significant."

The level of violence seen leading up to and during the Aug. 20 presidential election may sow some doubt about how safe it is to cooperate with Americans on rebuilding projects. And quick deployment will be tough in the areas recently retaken. Despite arriving in early July, it's not until late August that the Marines expect to begin expanding beyond their bases, says Rory Donohoe, director of USAID's Alternative Livelihood programs in southern Afghanistan.

"I can take a USAID worker and put him in an MRAP [armored vehicle] and go anywhere, but it's really the Afghan civilian officials that matter – their freedom of movement," says Mr. Donohoe, who is based in Helmand. The safety radius for those Afghan officials is now limited to about 1,000 feet from the bases – a distance that security forces will now start pushing outward. "We can't build a school if we don't have a Ministry of Education representative in there, and if he cannot leave the forward operating base, we are not there yet," says Donohoe.

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