The following day, I met Rory Donohoe, the new USAID representative in Helmand. Donohoe himself, in fact, was an independent contractor. The agency was so short on personnel that it hired contractors to monitor its contractors.
A 29-year-old Californian, Donohoe had an MBA from Georgetown and brimmed with ambition. His age and limited experience reflected a reality of the post-9/11 effort. USAID and other civilian agencies struggled to get seasoned, mid-career professionals to take posts in Afghanistan. Some had children and were unwilling to risk their lives. Others went to Iraq, which was seen as more of a potential career builder.
Tall, with dark hair and a boyish face, Donohoe told me he viewed the free market as the answer to Helmand's ills. To curb poppy cultivation, he and USAID's new director of agriculture in Afghanistan, Loren Stoddard, were proposing sweeping new projects that would create markets for the export of legal crops.
One afternoon, Donohoe and Stoddard gave me a tour of Lashkar Gah's former Soviet airbase. They excitedly described a $3 million plan to clear mines from the base and turn it into an industrial park and airport.
Standing a few feet from rusting Soviet fuel tanks and ambulances, Donohoe told me how pomegranates, a delicacy in Helmand for centuries, would be flown to emerging markets in India and Dubai. Marble would be cut and polished for construction. And a 40-year-old, state-run cotton gin would be privatized and expanded.
"This could be the commercial heart of southern Afghanistan," Donohoe told me.
A few days later, Donohoe and Stoddard showed me a project to teach Afghan farmers how to grow chili peppers on contract for a company in Dubai. A USAID subcontractor had brought three white Zimbabwean farmers to Helmand to help show Afghan farmers how to grow the peppers. The Zimbabweans had been driven from their farms by supporters of President Robert Mugabe.
"These kinds of partnerships with private companies are what we want here," Donohoe said. "We'll let the market drive it."
Stoddard, a burly 38-year-old former food broker from Provo, Utah, said he had launched a similar project in Guatemala where farmers sold chili peppers to Wal-Mart. From the start, though, security problems plagued the Helmand effort. After local villagers snuck into the chili pepper demonstration farm and stole produce, USAID hired watchmen.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, two dozen Afghan men with assault rifles staffed six wooden guard towers that ringed the farm, safeguarding the chili peppers.
"Some people would say that security is so bad that you can't do anything," Donohoe told me. "But we do it."
Asadullah Wafa, the province's new Afghan governor, told me that the American reconstruction effort was too small and "low quality."
"There is a proverb in Afghanistan," he said. "By one flower we cannot mark spring."
As their presence grew, the British vastly expanded the small American base in Lashkar Gah and built a one-story building that contractors called "The Hilton." British government civilians lived in a modern dormitory bedecked with photos of Queen Elizabeth, Monet prints and widescreen televisions. Soldiers built volleyball courts, gardens and bars.
"There were too many people who were in Helmand that were not in Helmand," a British contractor who asked not to be named later told me. "They couldn't see beyond the walls that protected them."
British and American civilian officials dismissed the criticism. They said they ventured into remote parts of the province for weeks at a time, were repeatedly attacked by the Taliban and narrowly survived several suicide bombings.
At night, I attended surreal cookouts in fortified Lashkar Gah compounds inhabited by British, Dutch and South African contractors. White Zimbabweans and South Africans grilled boerewors sausage and downed gallons of alcohol. To me, they embodied the mix of sincerity, greed and absurdity that marked the post-2001 effort. Some were desperate for work. Others were desperate for adrenaline.
At times, I felt pity for contractors saddled with Sisyphean tasks. In 2005, DynCorp, the American conglomerate the State Department hired to train Afghan police, sent two retired American deputy sheriffs to train Helmand's 3,000 police. One was a California native who had trained police in the Balkans. The other hailed from a small town in Wyoming. Before arriving in Helmand, he had never been east of the Mississippi River.
At other times, I was baffled by the schemes USAID approved. In 2005, a USAID administrator brought 11 Bolivian cobblestone road builders to Helmand to teach their craft to local people. Afghans, who had driven on asphalt roads for 30 years, were uninterested.
In general, the most effective foreign organization was the generously funded American military. Marine and army units mounted sprawling efforts to both kill Taliban and create jobs. Highly trained young officers and soldiers were generally impressive.
"The war is good for contractors, for journalists, for generals," I scribbled in my notebook during one visit, well aware that I too profited professionally from Helmand. "The war is not good for the Afghan people. How do we create 'The Good War' again?"
* * *
In 2010, "Little America" became the epicenter of the Obama administration's troop surge. Over 22,000 American marines - 200 times the Americans deployed in 2001 - arrived in the province. Roughly 10,000 British soldiers battled the Taliban as well.
Marjah, an obscure farming area outside Lashkar Gah built by American engineers in the 1960s, became the focus of a sweeping Marine offensive. In 2010, the United States spent nearly $1.3 billion in the district, or $16,250 for each of its 80,000 residents. The vast majority of the funding paid for American military operations.
Following the influx of 30,000 foreign troops, security in Lashkar Gah and half the province improved. The number of Americans assigned to training the Afghan army and police finally reached the levels American commanders had requested for years. The number of USAID officials in Helmand rose from one to 11.
But a wave of Afghan civilian administrators promised by the Karzai government never appeared. Some effective local Afghan rulers emerged, but there were simply too few of them.
Donohoe, the young USAID contractor who oversaw other contractors, became a USAID staffer, stayed in the province for three-and-a-half years and finally left Helmand in October 2010. Contractors complained about him at times, but respected Donohoe for spending so much time in the province. He was the longest-serving USAID field officer in Afghanistan. Most USAID officials - and other civilians - rotated out of remote posts after 12 to 18 months.
In a recent interview, Donohoe defended USAID's record in Helmand. He said only 1 percent of the agency's budget went to the cobblestone road and chili pepper project. The agency completed the airport, doubled the electricity supply to Helmand and reduced poppy production by roughly one-third. One of his biggest challenges, he said, was curbing an American tendency to do things themselves instead of relying on Afghans.
Eager to have concrete achievements during their one-year tours, American civilians and soldiers tended to implement projects themselves, Donohoe said. Afghan officials and firms often moved slowly and struggled with quality. By the time he left, he felt there had been a change in philosophy among U.S. officials.
"Everyone agreed that the only way for us to get out was for the Afghans to do things for themselves," Donohoe said. "The goal was to build an Afghan government that was capable of meeting the needs of its people."
During the Cold War project in Helmand, he said, Afghans played a larger role in planning and decision making. And during his time in Helmand, Donohoe found that the U.S. achieved more when it focused on a small number of modest goals over a longer period and worked closely with locals. In the end, he argued, Americans had to trust Afghans to do it themselves.
"Helmand is never going to be the Little America that was envisioned," he said. "But I do think Helmand is going to be O.K."
If the U.S. continued to support Afghanistan, he added, the country will find its way.
"I think ultimately, the Afghans, they will figure this out," Donohoe told me. "They know what's going on better than we do."
My time in Helmand left me convinced that one of the major symptoms - and causes - of the decay in USAID and other civilian government institutions was the rise of private contractors. At the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 260,000 contractors worked in both countries, outnumbering the American forces deployed there.
The use of contractors minimized the number of American troops and hid the wars' human toll. Between 2001 and 2010, 8,550 U.S. soldiers and foreign contractors died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forty percent of the dead were contractors.
Congressional investigators found that contracting proved more costly than employing government workers, and tales of shoddy work abounded. From 2001 to 2010, federal agencies paid a staggering $206 billion to contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq. An estimated $30 billion was lost to waste, fraud and abuse.
To be sure, many Afghan leaders performed even worse than foreign contractors. Afghan governors appointed by President Hamid Karzai profited from the drug trade in Helmand, seized land and attacked rivals. With no strong institutions, merit system or faith in the future, Afghans took whatever they could whenever they could for their families. Cynicism and graft ran rampant.
The idealistic Americans I came to know in Helmand met different fates. Grader, the cold warrior who served as my first guide in the province, never returned to Afghanistan. In 2010, he died in Marblehead after a brutal, two-year battle with brain cancer. Donohoe works for USAID in Peru. Williams, the contractor who took me to the dam, continues to work in Helmand. The Taliban or drug traffickers have killed seven of his Afghan employees since 2001.
This spring, I met Williams in Washington when he was in town on business. Under the Obama surge, business boomed for him in Afghanistan. In 2011, Williams's firm had work in 19 provinces. With U.S. forces preparing to leave, the number of provinces where he worked had dwindled to seven. His company would never abandon Afghanistan, he vowed, and would continue to work there even if the Taliban take over.
The expansion of the Kajaki dam that he spoke about so excitedly eight years earlier had still not been completed. In 2008, a five-day military operation involving 2,000 British soldiers successfully moved a third turbine to the dam, and USAID hired a Chinese firm to install it. Yet Taliban attacks blocked the delivery of 900 tons of cement needed to complete the job and the Chinese firm abandoned the effort. Officials from USAID, which has spent $72 million on the stalled project since 2004, said work on the dam continues.
Missteps by contractors continue as well. A South African security guard who worked for the British government shot dead an Afghan colleague in 2009, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 16 years in an Afghan prison.
The Washington Post reported that former employees of Chemonics, which has received over $430 million in USAID contracts since 2003, said their superiors kept their mouths shut about failing programs in order to keep contracts flowing. A spokeswoman for Chemonics said the company is now employee owned and stands by its work in Afghanistan.
Louis Berger, the American engineering firm hired to repair the dam, paid a $70 million fine after a whistleblower exposed systematic overbilling of USAID. The firm did not respond to a request for comment. And the husband and wife that ran the small,Houston-based security firm that escorted us to the dam - USPI - pleaded guilty in 2009 to overbilling USAID for $3 million between 2004 and 2007.
The American military also stumbled. In January, a video of four American Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban appeared on the Internet. Investigators later discovered it had been filmed in northern Helmand.
Williams loathed Karzai and other corrupt Afghans. But he also blamed American officials for failing to mount a serious effort until 2010 and instead relying on Afghan warlords to stabilize the country. In the process, they alienated the Afghan people.
"They see us coming and propping up these crooks," he said. "We do the same thing over and over."
Williams said he was ashamed of America's track record in Afghanistan.
"Our whole culture has changed since 2001," he told me. "What have we become?"
Looking back, Helmand acted as a mirror. The American military received 95 percent of the $557 billion the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan since 2001 while an understaffed USAID and State Department struggled to devise and carry out complex political and development projects. At the same time, the American public's demand for quick, inexpensive solutions grew.
The result on the ground was a disjointed, wasteful and superficial effort. Projects became more about Americans impressing their bosses back home than creating lasting results on the ground for Afghans. American idealism - our great asset and flaw - faded. The name Little America took on a new meaning for me. It became a reference to a diminished America that had lost its way.