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Pakistan slow to rebuild Swat Valley a year after offensive

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DRUSHKHELA, Pakistan » People here felt a surge of optimism last year when the military declared the Swat Valley cleared of Taliban insurgents, who had bullied their way to power by publicly whipping and beheading opponents.

But more than a year after millions of residents returned home, the absence of virtually any government follow-through has turned that hope into despair.

Throughout the valley, tens of thousands of students are sheltered by broken-down walls and flimsy tents supplied mostly by international aid groups. The government has yet to rebuild even one of the more than 150 schools leveled by the Taliban in their methodical campaign to prevent girls’ education.

Running water, electricity and school supplies are widely absent. The floods that ravaged the country this summer, and hit Swat especially hard, have only compounded the hardships and diverted money and attention away from reconstructing war-torn areas.

The lack of any visible progress has fed the frustrations of local people and international donors over the government’s incompetence and corruption, raising fears that it has squandered a chance to win over a pivotal population in its war against militancy, which has been urged on by the United States.

"In the minds of these little kids, the frustration against our own government is developing, and against the West is developing," said Esanullah Khan, a landlord here who advises the army and aid organizations on rebuilding schools. "They’ll go into Talibanization or miscreants because that is their only option left. What do they have to lose?"

"And who is the one to blame?" he said, parroting the students’ reasoning. "It’s the United States of America."

Jamal Uddin, a ninth-grader who missed nearly two years of school because of the conflict in Swat, used to detest the Taliban, who bombed his school in the village of Baidera in 2008. Now, he says, he has no reason to support either side.

He has watched as a parade of government leaders has visited his school without removing even one brick from the rubble. The Taliban tightened their hold on Swat by exploiting class grievances, and Jamal, who is about 17, protested that the wealthy class and politicians, who are often the same, do not care for the poor or their schools.

"I don’t have any more faith," he said. "I don’t even believe I’ll become a bus conductor."

Pakistani officials defended their performance, saying that hiring engineers and architects to ensure that schools would be safe from earthquakes was a time-consuming process that was delayed two months by the floods.

They also blamed foreign governments who, they said, failed to follow through on pledges made when several million people were displaced from Swat by the military’s campaign to oust the Taliban in 2009.

"The focus has shifted," said Shakeel Qadir, the director general of the Provincial Relief, Rehabilitation and Settlement Authority, a government agency set up last year to "speed and ease" the rehabilitation of areas swept by fighting.

"The issue of postmilitancy reconstruction — not only schools, but enterprise, infrastructure — somehow the whole international community has forgotten the issue, which we feel is perhaps, if not more important, than as important as floods," he said.

Foreign government officials say they are reluctant to give money for fear it will be siphoned off by politicians. The provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where Swat is located, was listed as the most corrupt provincial administration in the country by the global advocacy group Transparency International.

"Donors need clarity," said one foreign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. "It’s unfortunate, but that’s where we are."

So far the United States is the only foreign government to contribute to the school cause. It gave $5 million in April and planned to release an additional $15 million if it was satisfied with the transparency of how its initial donation was used, and with the progress made.

Officials said that the pledges would build 108 schools over roughly two years but added that they were still $1 billion short of what was needed to restore the region’s infrastructure.

The United States was so concerned about corruption that it set up an elaborate system that tracks the funds, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.

Qadir, the rehabilitation agency director, said the Pakistani government had short-circuited many of those procedures to speed up reconstruction. However, he said, the U.S. insistence on financial safeguards has undoubtedly delayed progress.

"Is making compromises on financial controls a smart thing?" he said. "Is winning or losing the hearts and minds of the people a smart thing? You cannot have the cake and eat it, too."

Another official from the relief authority in Mingora, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said international donors were wise to take the precautions. Despite the safeguards, he said, contracts for 68 schools were steered to a handful of construction companies with direct ties to politicians.

The government’s record contrasts with that of Pakistanis who have taken matters into their own hands.

A nonprofit organization called Sarhad Rural Support Program raised $400,000 in donations from wealthy Pakistanis and rebuilt seven prefabricated schools in six weeks. It did so by putting money in the hands of community leaders, not government officials, and by recruiting local volunteers.

But even elite schools can do only so much in the absence of an energetic response by the government.

Ismail Khan, the principal at Sangota Public School and Excelsior College, a renowned semiprivate school, said he tapped his endowment to rent a defunct hotel to hold classes. Teachers worked for free at one point.

Still, the hotel can accommodate only half of his 1,300 students. The school is running a $3,500 deficit each month.

"Day by day, our problems are increasing," Khan said. "It is destined to be doomed."

 

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