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Kabul's can-do mayor keeps everyone happy

Muhammad Yunus Nawandish, mayor of Kabul speaks to the media during an unveiling of streetlights ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010.

Ahmad Massoud/The Associated Press/Ahmad Massoud/The Associated Press

In a city of rock-studded roads, gargantuan traffic jams and choking dust-borne pollution, the man who paves is king.

So it is that Mayor Muhammad Yunus Nawandish has become the most popular person in Kabul, and perhaps in all of Afghanistan.

A can-do engineer in a smartly tailored suit, Mr. Nawandish has managed to accomplish what few Afghan public officials have done. Working with a bare-bones budget and little formal political clout, he gets foreign donors to pay for what he thinks his city needs and then he takes the credit.

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"We tell the donors what needs to be built," he says, pointing out construction sites on an aerial photograph of Kabul with his handy laser pen. "And we have lots of projects and plans for any donor who walks in."

The mayor's days are a blur of ribbon-cuttings with beaming ambassadors and tête-à-tête conferences with international consultants bearing money, advice and grand schemes. The Americans want to install solar-powered street lights. India installed public toilets. Turkey is building an overpass. Japan donated buses.

Mr. Nawandish, pointer in hand, steers all the eager visitors to his map. Too much time has been wasted. The city's population is ballooning. He wants new parks, new roads, new drainage canals, new bus stops, new bridges, new sports centres and more. In the nine months he has been in office, he has had 650,000 trees planted. This time next year, he says with confidence, there will be one million.

The mayor's feat is leveraging the foreign aid money that is pouring into Afghanistan. The donors still call the shots, hiring the high-priced advisers and contractors from their own countries. He accepts this, grudgingly. Like the Afghan government, he has little choice. But he has figured out how to manage and reassure the donors.

"This guy is someone we can do business with, finally" said a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He wants to do things big and he wants to do things now."

Kabul is a microcosm of Afghanistan nine years after the fall of the Taliban regime and its reopening to the outside world.

The barricaded streets leading to embassies and wealthy neighbourhoods, the armed guards and the blast walls, are reminders of the violent insurgency that sometimes intrudes into the capital.

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Electricity remains sporadic. Sewage goes untreated. Clean drinking water remains a far-off dream for anyone without the means to buy it bottled and imported. The basic infrastructure, never up to par and then wrecked by successive wars, remains a shambles.

So many Afghans, especially residents of the chaotic and smelly capital, complain that all the much-vaunted foreign aid has yet to buy them the basic services of modern life. The bitterness is shared by Afghan officials who concede they need the foreign aid but are impatient with the way it has been spent.

Towering above the cluttered streets in central Kabul, for example, is a multi-storey 350-bed hospital built by China and opened in 2009.

The government cannot afford to staff, equip and supply it.

"We can't run it," Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal says. "So now tens of millions of dollars are still spent on sending poor people who need treatment to India and Pakistan."

Foreign governments also built diesel-powered generator plants, the biggest a $300-million plant financed by the United States. An American government audit lastyear slammed the project, saying Afghanistan is unlikely to be able to afford the diesel fuel to operate it over the long run.

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"Diesel generators - hundreds of millions were spent across the country for these," Mr. Zakhilwal adds. "These we cannot afford. Maybe the donor said, 'I'll cover the costs for three or five years.' But I'd rather spend it on something else, on power generation that is more sustainable for us. And I could do it at half the cost."

He estimates that somewhere between $42-billion and $45-billion in development aid flowed into Afghanistan since 2002, not counting the money that foreign armies spent on scattered projects such as schools, roads and bases.

About 80 per cent of that is controlled directly by donors and buys services and supplies from the donor countries. Of the remaining money that is channelled through Afghan ministries, the Afghan government has discretionary authority over less than half. The rest is earmarked by donors for projects and programs that they devise, among them the "capacity-building" programs that translate into housing, travel allowances and salaries for foreign advisers.

"There are projects where most of the money is spent in Afghanistan," Mr. Zakhilwal says. "But there are lots of others where the money isn't spent here. It hit the ground and jumped out. Many donors are not an exception to this, including Canada."

Afghanistan, which relies on foreign aid just to pay many of its workers' salaries, needs foreign help and will need it for years to come. "But instead of bringing me this much advice," he adds, "do a project that can last me 10 years."

Mayor Nawandish voices similar complaints. He has even fewer resources, less control and a budget that is puny compared to his ambitions.

The city of Kabul, for example, collects about the equivalent of about $30-million a year in taxes on businesses and fees for services. It is supposed to get another $10-million to $20-million for operating costs from the central government this year, which would bring its budget to about $50-million.

The city does not control its own police force, manage traffic or run a sewage treatment system. Still, for comparison, Ottawa has one-sixth the population of Kabul and collects $2.5-billion a year in revenues.

About one-fifth of the country's entire population lives in Kabul, a metropolis of mud houses punctuated by a handful of shiny high-rises, that has sprawled at the edges and crept up the sides of the smog-obscured mountains that encircle it.

"And it's unplanned growth, and that's why the city can't deliver services," Mr. Nawandish says.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, returning refugees and displaced people from the countryside have swelled the population of Kabul from about two million in 2001 to close to five million today. Those are estimates. No census has been taken here for decades.

In the space of a few years, the number of cars and trucks registered in the capital has also skyrocketed, quadrupling to more than 400,000. Most are used vehicles imported from North America, Europe and China. Neither the road system, a network of cratered packed-dirt streets, nor the traffic control system can handle them.

Traffic lights are non-existent. Harried policemen, many wearing masks to ward off the fumes and pollution, wave drivers to a stop with round placards that resemble Ping-Pong paddles. They have varying degrees of success in managing the flow, but the state of the streets at least forces the traffic down to speeds ranging from slow to stop-and-go.

"There have been a few improvements recently, but the new roads really are not built to very high standards," says Nooruddin Hamdard, the harried chief of the traffic police. The same might be said of Kabul drivers. "Three decades of war have had an impact," he says. "Most of them have driver's licences but they've forgotten what they learned."

The central government and the city sometimes run at cross purposes. A month ago, the government declared that the Afghan work week would run from Saturday through Wednesday, adding an extra day off to the existing Friday-only weekend.

The purpose was to reduce pollution by giving Kabul residents an incentive to stay at home and not drive.

Mr. Nawandish, who says he has to pay his employees from the city's overstretched budget, was livid. "Unfortunately it creates lots of problems because you can't just take two days off when you're providing city services," he says. "We have 2,000 cubic metres of waste that pile up every day. We have to pay overtime to city workers to clean it."

While the mayor and other Afghan officials chafe at their lack of control over foreign aid and development projects, donor countries and aid agencies remain hesitant to cede ground out of concern that Afghans might fritter away the money through corruption.

Mr. Nawandish's predecessor was convicted of graft, although the former mayor said he was hounded from office only because he tried to tax rich landowners who had acquired their properties illegally.

In any case, he and the mayors before him had a decidedly frosty relationship with foreign donors. Mr. Nawandish, who was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as an anti-corruption figure, says things have changed all around.

"There were lots of cases of people extorting land and building willy-nilly," he says. But he vows not to bow to "Mafia" bosses.

The mayor's energetic courting of foreign money has repaired much of the damage and he has won general praise for delivering projects. He can often be seen at the sites of foreign-financed construction projects, poring over blueprints and haranguing contractors. On the street and in his office, he is sometimes mobbed by admirers who thank him effusively for asphalting the street they drive to get to work and for bringing a few hours of electricity to their houses.

"They put projects out to bid. They specify who can get the contracts," he says of the city's benefactors. "But the municipality controls the quality and speed of the work."

Being the mayor of Kabul has historically been a short-lived job. In the past 90 years only a handful of the city's mayors, who used to be elected, served more than three years in office. Rumour has it that the go-getter Mr. Nawandish could soon be tapped to take over the government ministry dealing with energy resources.

His experience managing foreign donors could come in handy. "For infrastructure Afghanistan needs a lot of help from the international community," the mayor says. "We have resources but we need outside help to develop them. We need time - perhaps a very long time."

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