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SHAR-E-SAFA, Afghanistan — Hundreds of men, women and children gather outside the gate of the district government compound in this village in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province. They’ve come for free medical checkups and humanitarian supplies being distributed by U.S. forces and Afghan police.
It’s a rare chance for treatment for many of them, since there are virtually no health clinics throughout the district.
An Afghan guard waves the men past the gate one at a time. The men stand quietly before a pair of U.S. soldiers.
"Salaam aliekum," a U.S. soldier says, bowing slightly, his hand of his heart, in the traditional Afghan greeting, as one old man shuffles forward. "Peace be with you."
"Salaam," the old man says. The soldier motions with his hands, and the man raises his arms as the soldier passes a metal detector over him and pats him down quickly. The man has no weapons or contraband, and the soldier sends him on. "Tashakor," the soldier says. "Thank you."
For several hours one morning last week, it went this way, with men and boys going through one gate, and women and girls going through another. Once inside the compound, they received free medical checks by U.S. personnel, medicine if they needed it, and bundles of food, clothing, shoes and other items distributed by Afghan police.
With the Taliban presence strong throughout the district of Tarnak Wa Jaldak, most people here are stuck in the middle, unsure of where to cast their allegiance, according to U.S. troops. But events such as these help show the people that U.S. forces and the Afghan government are on their side, they say.
"This should be able to help the villagers with their illnesses and give us a good IO (information operations) campaign to say that we can help them," said Capt. Odelle Means, 30, of Columbia, S.C., the leader of Team Viper, which advises the Afghan police in Shar-e-Safa. "Not just us, but the Afghan government as well."
Reaching out periodically with medical aid and humanitarian supplies is just one of several projects that the soldiers with Team Viper and the U.S-led Regional Police Advisory Command have launched four months ago in the village of Shar-e-Safa and Tarnak Wa Jaldak, a district which has about 36,000 inhabitants. They’ve also funded the construction of dozens of solar-powered wells, started a small reforestation program, and are providing money for the construction of two new schools, one of which will be used to educate girls, a huge step for the region. The soldiers here envision a development plan that will take 12 years to complete, but they are taking it one step at a time.
"There are 24 villages within a 10-kilometer radius of Shar-e-Safa," said Capt. Matthew Ryan, 42, of Buffalo, N.Y., who oversees the projects, and who speaks a fair amount of Dari, one of the two dominant languages of Afghanistan. "Fourteen of those villages had no water, no wells, nothing."
The costs have been modest so far — only about $116,000 — most of it for local labor, but the potential payoff is huge.
"Happy people don’t blow things up," Ryan said.
Shadi Khan, the district chief for Shar-e-Safa, said people’s lives have already been improved, and that they are grateful for the help.
"Of course, this kind of help is very good for the people of Shar-e-Safa," Khan said, speaking through a translator. "And for this kind of help, the people are very happy for the U.S. being here."
First Lt. Steven Erickson, 24, of Stoughton, Wis., who is executive officer for Team Viper, said the overall goal is that Shar-e-Safa will become a model for development for the Tarnak Wa Jaldak district, which will in turn become a model for all of Zabul province and undercut support for the Taliban.