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A town like Alice-ghan

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The dream town that Australia built in the middle of the desert is half empty and beset by the kind of wrangling that is today's Afghanistan.

Men walk past the mosque Australia built on the flats of Sorgh Morghab.

Men walk past the mosque Australia built on the flats of Sorgh Morghab. Photo: Kate Geraghty

TARIN KOWT: It stands imposingly on the flats of Sorgh Morghab, but the copper-topped mosque that the Australians built is a bit like the pub with no beer – without a mullah it doesn't quite cut it as a mosque.

And in the absence of a town that was to embrace it, this mosque sits embarrassingly in the middle of a desert.

Former foreign minister Kevin Rudd went all the way to Oruzgan for the official opening in March 2011. But according to Khaliq Dad, a gap-toothed local baker, if there is no mullah to lead prayers, there is no point for the faithful to congregate at what is otherwise one of the more substantial mosques in Oruzgan.

Khaliq Dad, a local baker, says if there is no mullah to lead prayers, there is no point in congregating at the mosque.

Khaliq Dad, a local baker, says if there is no mullah to lead prayers, there is no point in congregating at the mosque. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Much to the disgust of local officials, the mosque's gardens are ill kempt and a thick film of dust envelops its circular, red-carpeted prayer hall and an adjoining madrassa or religious school. “If it was in town it would be clean and crowded,” says a senior police official, before he wanders off, muttering: “wrong spending, wrong place”.

Like the town they call Aliceghan, this is another showcase bricks-and-mortar contribution by Australia, in which local powerbrokers in the new Afghanistan seem to have taken Canberra up a blind ally.

Aliceghan was to be a dream satellite suburb, 50 kilometres north of Kabul. It could never be the Australian dream they had sought, but as many as 10,000 lucky returned asylum-seekers were expected to live in a 1400-home estate with running water, schools, jobs, training and business opportunities.

The dust-covered chairs and tables in the mullah-less mosque.

The dust-covered chairs and tables in the mullah-less mosque. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Apart from a failure to meet the Afghan cultural requirement that family homes be concealed behind a high wall, an inspection for Fairfax Media last year revealed that six years into the $8 million project, more than half of the homes were empty and falling into disrepair.

Embarrassingly for Canberra, Aliceghan was beset by the kind of wrangling that is today's Afghanistan in microcosm: disputes over electricity and water supplies; squatters moving in and neighbouring landowners claiming ownership of the estate; insurgency bombings; and police corruption.

The mosque at Sorgh Morghab has that same forlornness, with an engraved marble plaque next to its gated entrance hinting at overreach by well-intentioned foreigners who become putty in the hands of self-interested locals.

Acknowledging the provincial governor, Kevin Rudd and the local tribal elders, the plaque hails the mosque as “a symbol of the shared history of the people of Australia and Afghanistan and hope for the future”.

The inclusion of the Australian and Afghan flags in the plaque are a nice decorative touch on a job, which, according to a close relative of the lucky construction contractor, cost between $600,000 and $700,000. An Australian Defence Force spokesman referred Fairfax Media to government papers in which the mosque is priced at $233,000 – the same document values other, unspecified community projects at Sorgh Morghab at $74,000.

Asked about the rationale for the mosque project and if its viability had been examined before construction, the ADF referred to a published interview with Bernard Philip, a diplomat who was stationed in Tarin Kowt. He is quoted briefly on the "large and beautiful mosque at Sorgh Morghab, which will help bring that community together".

The ADF's response did not acknowledge the failure to recruit a mullah for the mosque, which it describes as part of a community development "in consultation with the Afghan government and community leaders in an area that 'previously had been an economic and social hub ... and was seen as an important project to revitalize the region".

When Fairfax Media visited the mosque, passers-by volunteered that a Taliban threat to punish any mullah who leads prayers at a foreign-funded mosque is the reason it remains leaderless. And a local construction contractor, Hammedullah Hammedie, offered that Nabi Khan, the tribal chief who conceived the mosque project, tricked Canberra into shelling out.

Despite the questionable value of the mosque and Aliceghan, they should not be allowed to overshadow a substantial Australian contribution to reconstruction in Oruzgan – dwarfed as it is by the size of what is needed after years of neglect and an all-encompassing belief by locals that funds earmarked for development projects disappear in a haze of corruption.

Apart from a new airstrip and two major road links, it includes more than 200 kilometres of road and bridge upgrades, more than 350 small infrastructure projects, training to double civil service employment and establishing better links between centres of government – district, provincial, national.

The Oruzgan spend accounts for just 20 per cent of AusAID's Afghanistan funding, which now runs at $250 million a year. The bulk of the total allocation, more than $1 billion in the past 12 years, is invested in national programs managed by the central government in Kabul which, in turn, reinvests a portion of those funds in Oruzgan.

At his home in Tarin Kowt, the black-bearded Nabi Khan sits cross-legged on floor cushions in a small reception room. He is perplexed – pleased that he got the Australians over the line to build the mosque, but disappointed that they baulked on funding a dam that was to supply water to the town of his dreams.

Toying with the tail of his black and white silk turban, he insists there was logistical good sense in Australia providing the mosque as the centrepiece of his proposed new town, because its eventual population of 3000 families would have been obliged religiously to pay for its upkeep and to contribute to a salary for a mullah.

The Australians were not to know, he says, that his plan was perceived as a threat to the business interests of other tribes whose economic interests are staked in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital, or that his whole project could be stymied in a power play that went all the way to the office of President Hamid Karzai.

Until then, Nabi Khan had a good thing going.

He had failed to win support for his grand design from several departments of the Kabul government. But, he says, when he went calling on the Dutch, who had troops in Oruzgan, he came away with a commitment for funding to upgrade the road from Tarin Kowt to Chora, which runs through the middle of his proposed town site; and at the Australian embassy, he extracted an enthusiastic commitment – not only for the mosque but for an adjoining bazaar or shopping centre ... and maybe that dam, too.

There might be truth to his argument that Taren Kowt is squeezed – “not even room for a small playground,” he says.

But Nabi Khan's idea that his barren land is best suited to relocate all the Afghan security services and the factories of the future was always going to face resistance from the tribes that control business in the existing provincial centre. What is odd in all this is that the Australians seemingly failed to grasp this Afghan reality.

But at some point a light-globe came on in Canberra.

“I don't know why the Australians left me behind when we needed to implement the whole plan,” says Nabi Khan. “There was the dam that they should have built to irrigate the area, which is still a big desert. But now it's a year since I heard from them.”

Nabi Khan has taken to lobbying the religious affairs bureaucracy in Kabul, pinning his hope on an argument that the government must pay a mullah and provide additional funding for a teacher and books for the madrassa. Lost on him, according to one of his smug rivals, is the reality that the Dutch-funded road works had obviated any need for his new commercial centre, because once the road had been upgraded, Tarin Kowt was just a few minutes farther down the road.

It was a cruel twist of fate. The roadwork was part of a deliberate Dutch policy to look out for tribes, like Nabi Khan's, which were being squeezed to the margins in local power plays. But in building him up, the drop for Nabi Khan would only be longer once they departed.

And for now, all that exists of Nabi Khan's dream is a roundabout in the desert – on which sits a fine and pretty empty mosque, a humble bazaar of not too many shops, and the sprawling foundations for what was to be Nabi Khan's new home.

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