U.S. tries to keep word after promises not kept
August 31, 2008
GARDEZ, Afghanistan — As tribesmen from this contentious region of eastern Afghanistan arrived at a U.S. base for what the Americans had dubbed a "Super-Shura" — translation: big meeting — heavy machinery chugged busily near the entrance to the carpet-floored tent.
The message, American commanders hoped, was hard to miss — the road is really coming.
The road, $98 million worth of pavement that will run 60 miles through rugged mountains to the city of Khost, near the Pakistani border, has been on promise for several years. But work crews lately have ascended the mountain passes, and commanders say the road — funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development — should be completed by the end of 2009.
It will serve several critical functions, they say, shortening the route from Kabul, landlocked Afghanistan’s capital, to the Pakistani port city of Karachi by some 250 miles. It will also connect Khost, which has a long history of fierce resistance to central government, to the rest of the country.
Khost has been among the most violent parts of Afghanistan.
A U.S. base in the province, Camp Salerno, was attacked last week by a pair of vehicle bombs and a squad of men wearing explosive belts, and U.S. troops along the border there have seen heavy fighting.
Winning over the area’s tribes has not come readily, and it’s complicated by the fact that Jalaluddin Haqqani, who leads a group of Taliban-aligned fighters, hails from the region and once served as governor of Paktia province, where Gardez is the capital. U.S. Army Col. Pete Johnson said the heavy turnout at Thursday’s Shura — roughly 800 people attended — demonstrated that the tribes are at least interested in what the government has to offer.
"Our assessment is that there’s a large neutral, survivalist tendency in this area," said Johnson, who commands the U.S. task force here. "There’s a clear majority ready to do better for their tribe, [but] they’re really sort of checking to see which way the tide is going."
Johnson, whose unit arrived in March, said he didn’t know why the road project hadn’t gotten started before, and he acknowledged that the failure to produce major improvements had hampered efforts to turn back public support for the insurgency.
"They increased expectations and didn’t deliver," he said of the Afghan government.
Road-building has become a major focus across much of Afghanistan, reflecting the widespread lack of basic infrastructure and the modest nature of reconstruction efforts since the Taliban government was toppled seven years ago. But roads, including the highway that runs through Gardez on its way between Kabul and Kandahar, have also become a frequent target for insurgent attacks, and Johnson said he expects insurgents will attack the new road project as well.
"One of the insurgency-stated intentions is to prevent the construction" of the road, he said. "They want to keep Khost isolated."
Inside the Shura tent, the road received a positive reception. Fida Mohammed, a 25-year-old schoolteacher from Paktia, said it was badly needed. But then, he said, it wasn’t the only thing.
Afghanistan suffers from a critical lack of trained teachers, but Mohammed said he needed a different job that would pay him enough to support his family, perhaps working as a translator for U.S. troops. Meanwhile, he said, security in his village was growing worse.
"During the day, there’s no problem," he said, "but at night half the village is Taliban."
And as provincial politicians followed each other windily to the podium well into midafternoon, Mohammed and many others in the crowd began to badly need something else too: lunch.