Afghanistan: The long road ahead
Teams rebuilding war-torn country one village at a time
Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on reconstruction in Afghanistan.
KOHSAN, Afghanistan — The tea they serve is piping hot, the conversation warm and jovial. Young men with connections squeeze into the classroom, angling for a place to sit or stand, though they’re quick to yield to elders who arrive for this meeting with the Americans.
Respect for elders in Afghanistan remains unchallenged. The same applies to the educated.
“As we travel through the country,” U.S. Army Maj. Sam Agag tells the crowd, “everything we hear we relay back to the central government.”
That assurance is one Agag and his boss, Navy Cmdr. Kim Evans, will repeat again and again over the course of the next few days as they lead a provisional reconstruction team on a four-day mission into the northwestern corner of Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, Stars and Stripes went along for an inside look into what the team — and others like them across Afghanistan — do and how they do it. The team met with community leaders it knows and checked out unexplored pockets of a land either torn by conflict or largely ignored.
The trip lasted four days and three nights, taking the group into some villages untouched by Western civilization or the government in Kabul. With security a major concern, the team brought along a squad of infantrymen from the Minnesota National Guard and spent each of the three nights in fortified compounds.
In between the villages and remote settlements, the six-vehicle convoy traversed through sand and snow, across streams and dried-out riverbeds, up hills and down ravines. Often, roads amounted to nothing more than faint tire tracks, wisps of humanity in a forgotten corner of the world.
And yet, amid the utter desolation, there is life.
“The Afghan people are tough folks,” said Army Col. David Lamm, chief of staff for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
The classroom meeting in Kohsan came at the end of the first day, which began with a 9 a.m. departure from the team’s headquarters in Herat.
“I’ve got two propane tanks, two cans of diesel, one can of regular fuel and an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade],” Agag announces to the team before it rolled out of the gate.
The first stop came in the late morning when the convoy pulled into a citadel in Ghoryan, formerly occupied by militia forces loyal to Ismail Khan, now the Afghan minister of water and electricity. The Ghoryan district governor wasn’t in, but the chief administrator and police commander were.
One of U.S. goals in Afghanistan is the eradication of poppy fields that feed the worldwide heroin market.
“If you want me to destroy the poppy fields,” Col. Saifullah, the police chief, says, “I need tractors.”
But, he admits, even a tractor can’t reach all of the fields. An ox is mentioned as a possible solution, but then the conversation turns to bandits. In the days of the Taliban, a thief would get his right hand cut off if caught. With the fundamentalists gone, the robbers are back.
The problem is that Saifullah has few weapons, limited communication, one car and a monthly fuel allotment of just 150 liters, or five liters a day. And, while the chief’s salary is roughly $50 a month, his men receive about $15.
“You need to do more than give them a pair of pants and a shirt,” Agag says later in the day.
On the way to Kohsan, the team stops to help a man with a malfunctioning motorcycle. They soon learn he is not alone. His two wives and six kids wait patiently nearby for the head of the household to repair the family vehicle. The troops break out a toolbox, but grab their cameras, too. It’s not every day a person sees nine people atop a motorcycle.
Some 40 minutes later, the family drives off. It’s not long, however, before the troops are in trouble themselves. The maps they are using are old. They can’t find a dirt road that will funnel them north to the $50 million two-lane highway Iran recently paved to facilitate commerce between the border and Herat. In the end, the team winds up in a field of irrigation ditches and the command vehicle gets stuck.
Later, after the troops backtrack many miles, they see the Ghoryan district governor, who jokes even he gets lost in his own land.
A few of the troops are getting grumpy, though. Earlier they were ahead of schedule, but now the rush is on to make it to Kohsan before sunset. At 4:45 p.m., the six vehicles drive through the gates of a refurbished school for boys. Despite the delay, caused by misreads and outdated maps, the team has reached a safe destination for the night.
Minutes later, Evans and Agag are the center of attention as local leaders gather in a classroom to discuss issues such as education and crime.
On the blackboard, someone has written in chalk: “Getting money from him is like getting blood from a stone.” No telling what prompted that pronouncement, or who “him” is.
Taped to the wall above the blackboard are several charts, such as phases of the moon. What’s mildly surprising is that some are in English.
Abdul Qayum, the district administrator, gets down to business as tea is served. Much of the discussion centers on the lack of qualified teachers, mainly because the pay is so low.
Kids’ heads constantly pop through windows, each hoping to catch a glimpse of the Americans. One of the Afghan guards traveling with the civil affairs team shoos them away, at least for the moment.
“If there are no teachers, there’s no education,” says Abdul Qadir, a high-ranking security agent.
“The central government,” Agag says, “recognizes there is a shortage of qualified teachers and doctors. It takes time to make a good teacher, or a good doctor.”
The village of Kohsan is just beyond a six-mile, no-travel zone the U.S. Army has imposed on its soldiers. However, the village sits on a sandy knoll and, at night, residents can see the border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan. The customs and passport center is illuminated, while this village has no power.
“It’s been three years since the change in government,” Qadir says. “Here we are looking across the border and seeing them [Iranians] living in the light, and we are still in the dark.”
International crews taking control
KABUL, Afghanistan — A little more than two years ago, the first provincial reconstruction team made up of Americans began operating in Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. The mission — to provide assistance and bring legitimacy to the central government — is broader and a lot more complex these days.
That’s because at least 19 teams now exist, and not all of them are American. The Germans handle Kunduz, the British have the lead in Mazar-e Sharif and the South Koreans work Bagram. And that’s just a sampling of the growing international effort to help Afghanistan.
“You have to ask yourself where do you start, and the answer is everywhere,” said Canadian army Col. Randy Brooks, who earlier this year served as the coalition’s director of civil military operations in Afghanistan.
Plans call for a reconstruction team — or the rough equivalent envisioned by the International Security Assistance Force — in each of the 32 provinces.
But that’s down the road. In the near term, seven sites are being planned, Brooks said.
Additionally, NATO and other members of the coalition in Afghanistan will assume a greater role in the PRT mission. Countries such as Lithuania and Australia have stepped forward, Brooks said, and the intention is for the United States to gradually cede control of many reconstruction efforts in a counterclockwise direction across the country.
In the west, for example, an Italian team has replaced a U.S. contingent in Herat. Spanish soldiers are augmenting them.
“The goal is to know the people in this part of Afghanistan,” said Italian army Col. Claudio Vercellotti, a logistics officer who headed up the advance team. “We want to extend our knowledge of Herat and help the people.”
While the U.S. military and some civilian agencies look to lower their profile, there are no plans to step away entirely. Through the years, civil affairs personnel have been and will remain an integral part of any mission, U.S. Army officials said.
What “the Afghans fear most of all is abandonment by the United States,” noted Army Col. David Lamm, chief of staff of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan. That, he added, won’t happen “because we are staying here.”
— Kevin Dougherty