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Nangarhar Inc. is a regional growth plan that the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the State Department put together to try to boost an area in eastern Afghanistan.

Nangarhar Inc. is a regional growth plan that the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the State Department put together to try to boost an area in eastern Afghanistan. ()

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Attention Bill and Melinda Gates: Col. Charles Preysler has got a deal for you.

Give him $3.2 billion and seven years, and he’ll turn a province in Afghanistan into an economic center that could turn around the fortunes of two of the most troubled countries on Earth. He’ll also eventually eliminate the need for U.S. troops in a country they’ve had a presence in since late 2001.

He’s got a 62-page plan — developed by his command and the U.S. State Department — describing three dozen projects designed to make Nangarhar province an economic center that could better the lives of people on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Preysler calls Nangarhar "an economic engine waiting to take off." He’s not mixing metaphors as much as it might appear, because one of the key projects listed in Nangarhar Inc. is an international airport that would help get food produced in the region out to wider markets.

In theory, Preysler, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, won’t be around for much of the time to see the projects through. He and his troops are getting ready to return to Italy after spending almost 15 months in country. But one of the components in Nangarhar Inc. — the name of the plan, not a company — is establishing an agency to watch over and manage all the projects identified.

"It’s more than just a project list," said Jeremy Brenner, a State Department official who serves as Preysler’s political adviser. "It’s a regional development plan."

One created by soldiers from the brigade along with their counterparts from the State Department during about 10 days in March.

"We think it’s a model for success in interagency cooperation," said Maj. David Spencer, the point man on the project for the brigade. "I think it’s unprecedented."

Brenner said officials backing the project realize that most of the early investment is going to come from U.S. government agencies or nongovernmental agencies looking to make a difference. Private companies looking for a return on their investments would follow, with other donors – such as the Gateses – welcome to step in at any time they wish.

An unusual effort

Brenner said he’s not aware of any similar efforts on such a scale in Afghanistan or Iraq. He appears to have bought into the concept, although he’s not wild about the name Nangarhar Inc.

"It’s a bit of a misnomer," he said. "We’re not just talking about Nangarhar. We’re talking about eastern Afghanistan and beyond."

Preysler said he’s got "no idea" where all the money needed for the projects will come from.

"We’re going to find it," he said, adding that he and future military commanders only have a few million dollars each to contribute during their rotations. That would leave the projects a few billion dollars short of funding. "We really do need to get other government help and international donors. Part of it is marketing. We’ve got to let people know what’s out here."

Nangarhar Inc. calls for projects that would take advantage of the province’s location and natural resources. After roads, an airport, electricity-producing dams and other needed systems are in place, more efficient farms and factories would follow.

Since the U.S. believes that much of the insurgency is fueled by people who don’t have enough money to feed their families, greater prosperity would give them fewer reasons to fight and more reasons to support their government.

Preysler said he’s been in Afghanistan three times and has seen progress from tour to tour. "But not within the tour," he said. "Sometimes it’s like watching paint dry. But this time … I won’t declare success. But I have seen progress."

Preysler laughs when asked when he changed from an infantry brigade commander into a chamber of commerce spokesman.

"It took me until October to figure it out," he said. "I had to do my primary job, which is security, before that. We were fighting all summer long."

Other assets

Although an interview is interrupted a few times by aides updating him about flare-ups along the border, Preysler said the security situation in Nangarhar has improved enough that he can focus on the future.

"Most of the day, I spend talking about development and governance," he said. "And not fighting."

Afghan forces provide much of the security in Nangarhar, Preysler said. That’s not the case in other parts of his area of responsibility, such as Kunar province, where the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment has seen heavy fighting throughout its rotation.

But Preysler, Brenner and Spencer say that relative security is only one of Nangarhar’s assets. It has three rivers that could be used to generate electricity needed to fuel growth. The old Silk Road that carried goods between places such as China and Europe passes through. Pakistan and a rail network that reaches the port of Karachi aren’t far away. Neither is Kabul, the largest city in Afghanistan. Small farms are plentiful and they’re largely producing crops other than opium. Nangarhar’s biggest city, Jalalabad, is one of the largest in the country and is one of its quickest-growing population centers.

"Nangarhar has all of those things going for it, unlike most other areas in Afghanistan," Spencer said.

It still shares some of the challenges faced by the rest of the country. The criminal justice system is largely in disarray, for example.

"Before you can get General Electric to come in and build a dam on the Kunar River, you really need to deal with some governance issues and rule of law issues," Brenner said. "And we’re trying to do that."

Preysler sounds more like an infantry brigade commander again when summing it up the plan.

"This is a road map," he said. "This makes sense."

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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