December 7, 2002 - Washington Post: Civil-Military Program Aims to Win Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan
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December 7, 2002 - Washington Post: Civil-Military Program Aims to Win Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan
Civil-Military Program Aims to Win Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan
Caption: Children peer into one of the schools being rebuilt in an effort at economic reconstruction that will go "hand in glove" with U.S. combat operations.
Read and comment on this story from the Washington Post on American civil affairs soldiers in Afghanistan who have been rebuilding schools bombed to ruins years ago, hoping to win gratitude and loyalty from local Afghans.
Their work is controversial. On one hand, U.S. military officials said one of their major aims in establishing long-term, large operations in Gardez and other cities is to persuade international aid agencies to follow suit and return to impoverished but dangerous areas that desperately need help.
But nonprofit agency officials in Kabul scoff at the notion that they are reluctant to work in high-risk locations, pointing out that dozens of U.N. and other international aid groups remained in rural Afghanistan throughout the repressive Taliban era and the politically uncertain period that has followed it. These groups question both the need and motive for large contingents of armed U.S. soldiers to be moving into the Afghan hinterlands, ostensibly to provide services that civilian aid organizations contend they could offer more cheaply, discreetly and apolitically.
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Courting Afghanistan Brick by Brick*
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Courting Afghanistan Brick by Brick
Expanded Civil-Military Program Aims to Win Hearts and Minds
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 8, 2002; Page A32
GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- While U.S. combat troops were storming mountain caves and scouring ghost villages in search of enemy fighters, another group of American soldiers plodded away all year at a less glamorous mission in violence-plagued Paktia province.
Brick by brick, these civil affairs reservists have been rebuilding a trio of schools bombed to ruins years ago. In the process, they hope to win enough gratitude and loyalty from local Afghans -- some of whom openly resent the U.S. military presence -- to undercut any remnants of support for the defeated Taliban movement.
"At first our teams might have had rocks thrown at them, but now we're starting to get cooperation -- someone will say there's a weapons cache here or there," said Col. Phil Maughan, commander of the U.S. civil-military program based in Kabul. "Gardez is still a very non-permissive environment, but people are starting to be more open than in the past."
This month, the six-man hearts-and-minds operation in Gardez, the capital of this volatile eastern province, is to expand into something far larger, costlier and more ambitious. It will become the first of eight permanent civil-military action centers to be set up across Afghanistan, with up to 100 military specialists, security forces and possibly American civilians stationed in each one.
American officials described the effort as a major shift in emphasis for the U.S. military mission here. They said most of the 12,000-plus U.S. troops in Afghanistan will continue to focus on the pursuit and elimination of Islamic terrorism. But they emphasized their work needs to be supplemented by a sustained program of economic reconstruction, involving hundreds of additional reservists, to shore up support for the weak Afghan government and to ensure that Taliban and al Qaeda forces do not make a comeback.
"This goes hand in glove with combat operations," said Col. Roger King, a spokesman for U.S. military forces at Bagram air base north of Kabul. "You cannot have a stable environment without cooperation from the local populace. We want to show that our forces are not against them; we want our very presence to bring a feeling that good things can happen."
Nevertheless, the United States remains reluctant to use the phrase "nation-building" to describe the expanded civic-action program. The term implies long-term, costly commitments that the Bush administration initially insisted it would never undertake when it launched a military assault against the Taliban last year.
Officials also shy away from the word "peacekeeping," saying the U.S. role in Afghanistan is still primarily aimed at hunting down and wiping out remains of the Taliban or al Qaeda. But with training for the new Afghan army going slowly and European peacekeeping forces refusing to extend their role beyond the capital, the expanded U.S. program will inevitably fill some gaps.
Until now, civil-military operations in Afghanistan have been modest, with a budget of $6 million supporting scattered teams of six reservists each. Working from U.S. military bases in half a dozen Afghan cities, including Gardez, the teams contract local workers to rebuild war-damaged schools, clinics, wells and other public structures.
Under the new program, the budget will double and large, professional civil affairs teams, including engineers and veterinarians, will be stationed at regional bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Bamian, as well as Gardez. A coalition of private aid agencies operating in Afghanistan criticized the expansion of the U.S. military civic action program this past week, calling it "risky and premature" and suggesting that uniformed troops taking a major role in providing aid might undermine their efforts to bring about stability and development.
But as word of the Americans' plans has spread, local officials and residents have welcomed the news, partly because the added foreign troops mean greater security and partly because the projects will provide work for hundreds of people in areas flooded with returning refugees and idle former combatants.
"The more American soldiers we have here, the more peaceful it will be," said Taj Mohammed, 29, an engineer overseeing the school rebuilding projects in Gardez. Even more important, he said, will be the creation of jobs.
"A lot of men who used to carry guns are now working under my supervision," he said. "The more men I can hire, the more will lay down their weapons."
Despite their high-profile involvement in the community, the U.S. civil-military affairs teams operate under extreme security restrictions, staying in fortified bases off-limits to Afghans, traveling in convoys and carrying weapons when they visit projects in towns and villages.
Such standoffish precautions might seem to contradict the spirit of this mission, but in places such as Gardez, they seem well advised. In the past two weeks, the U.S. base outside the town has been attacked by rockets; an antitank mine was found in a half-rebuilt school; and grenades were tossed inside the local U.N. compound, causing the foreign staff to be recalled to Kabul.
Officials say they believe the attackers could be either Taliban sympathizers or supporters of Bacha Khan, a regional militia leader and onetime U.S. ally who has been battling the Afghan government for control of Gardez for months. Another persistent problem is highway robbery by Afghan soldiers -- including those outfitted and armed with Western help.
On Wednesday, an elderly, one-armed farmer named Zaman approached the U.S. base here pleading for help. He and his family had been returning from Kabul after selling several animals, he said, when their truck was stopped by 20 soldiers who beat them with rifle butts and stole all the money they planned to spend for Eid, the holiday that follows the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
"The American soldiers are kind to us, but the Afghan ones have no pity," Zaman said. "They had brand-new uniforms and Kalashnikovs. We thought they were searching cars, but they were looting them. Maybe they were working with the Americans, but we couldn't tell because they hid their faces with scarves."
Security problems could prove far worse in other cities where large civil-military centers are planned, especially Herat in the west and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. In both places, rival militias have clashed repeatedly in recent months, defying both central government authority and international efforts to broker peace talks.
Despite the risk, U.S. military officials said one of their major aims in establishing long-term, large operations in Gardez and other cities is to persuade international aid agencies to follow suit and return to impoverished but dangerous areas that desperately need help.
"Some of the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are gun-shy, and part of our purpose is to lure them back," said Capt. Dan, a civil-military officer in Gardez who declined to give his last name. Most local attacks come from "small groups of terrorists who want us to leave, who don't support the government," he said. "They think that by disabling the economy they can rise to power again. We're not going to let that happen."
Some nonprofit agency officials in Kabul scoff at the notion that they are reluctant to work in high-risk locations, pointing out that dozens of U.N. and other international aid groups remained in rural Afghanistan throughout the repressive Taliban era and the politically uncertain period that has followed it.
These groups question both the need and motive for large contingents of armed U.S. soldiers to be moving into the Afghan hinterlands, ostensibly to provide services that civilian aid organizations contend they could offer more cheaply, discreetly and apolitically.
"Why do they want to expand their role in areas where they don't have expertise?" asked Paul Barker, who directs the Afghan office of CARE International. If the goal is to quickly shore up political support for the Afghan government and its Western backers, he said, it could undermine other aid work and prove "counterproductive for long-term economic development and stability."
In Gardez last week, a few residents voiced skepticism on other grounds, acknowledging that U.S. military teams have helped secure and rebuild the city, but worrying that if their presence becomes wider and more entrenched, it could turn into a full-fledged occupation like the Soviet army takeover of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Most people, however, seemed excited at the prospect of more aid and jobs and unfazed by the combat fatigues on their growing corps of benefactors.
At one project site, teachers and children wandered admiringly through the half-rebuilt classrooms of a school that was destroyed by rockets during fighting between Soviet forces and Afghan guerrillas.
"This school was built in 1971, but the last time it had students was 1985," recalled Malik Shah, 49, a chemistry instructor who said he looks forward to training teachers in the school after it reopens. "The more education we have in Afghanistan, the less ignorance and insecurity. And the more projects like this the Americans do, the closer they will get to the heart of the people."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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Morroco RPCV Sarah Chayes starts aid organization in Afghanistan
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