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Afghanistan: PRTs Fight Taliban With Bridges, Roads, And Schools

  • Ron Synovitz

U.S. officials in Afghanistan say they are fighting the Taliban not only with guns but with infrastructure -- building roads, bridges, wells, schools, and power plants as a way to sap the extremist militia of the power it once held. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is in southern Afghanistan for a firsthand look at the U.S.-led coalition's so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

Kandahar, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Nadi, a merchant from Helmand Province, has traveled across much of southwestern Afghanistan in the past year to reach the bazaars where he sells his goods.

He says what Afghans in the region's remote towns and villages want most from U.S. troops is security against the gangs of roving criminals and militia fighters who plunder their land and property.

Nadi says the U.S. military's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar -- which plans this month to start building roads to some of those remote settlements -- is a key to winning lasting support from Afghans in places like Oruzgun Province, which spawned the Taliban movement.

"The people are pleased with the work [of the PRT]. But if they don't do this work, the people will not listen to [the Americans]. Nobody will take their advice. When they build the roads, the agriculture can improve. The robbers will be chased away and the people will get their land back," Nadi said.

"When [the Taliban] are telling the people, 'The central government doesn't care about you,' and [we] build a two-lane asphalt road through the center of their province -- when clinics sprout up, when schools are renovated, when kids are sitting in a classroom -- those are obvious symbols of the central government's concern for the people."
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duffy, the U.S. Army officer overseeing the expansion of PRTs across five southern provinces, agrees that road construction is critical. Duffy knows that the Taliban became popular during the mid-1990s because they reigned in rampaging militia groups. He says the best way to prevent a Taliban comeback is to improve living conditions along with security.

"A lot of revolutions purport to bring things that people have never seen. You know, 'We're going to bring you freedoms that you don't have. We're going to give you land that you don't own.' The Taliban were here. They failed. Now they're trying to come back with the same little spin on, 'They don't care for you.' So a lot of our efforts are on reconstruction. When [the Taliban] are telling the people, 'The central government doesn't care about you,' and [we] build a two-lane asphalt road through the center of their province -- when clinics sprout up, when schools are renovated, when kids are sitting in a classroom -- those are obvious symbols of the central government's concern for the people. The Taliban have nothing to do. They can't offer that. We're going to outbid them with reconstruction," Duffy told RFE/RL.

The Kandahar PRT is an old fruit factory on the northeast side of the city that has been converted to a forward operations base -- or "firebase" -- for U.S. forces. About 60 of the 80 soldiers there conduct security patrols -- both on foot and in armored Humvees. The patrols show residents there is a U.S. security presence in the area. They also protect foreign reconstruction specialists who work in the city and surrounding villages.

Representatives of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program also live on the Kandahar base. The PRT's construction specialists are due next week to start building a road linking Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of Oruzgun Province.

Captain David Hartmann, a resident project manager at the Kandahar PRT, is excited about such projects. He is one of four U.S. military engineers who have volunteered to extend their tours in Afghanistan in order to work on PRT projects in the south. There are clear signs that U.S. troops and Special Forces are mobilizing at the nearby "Ghecko" firebase for a spring offensive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Hartmann said that "killing the bad guys" is important. But he also said that in the long run, the way for the United States to win against a pro-Taliban insurgency is "by building."

Duffy told RFE/RL that the reconstruction mission is complicated in areas where tribal rivalries run deep. "One of the first things I learned here is that the tribal influences are very key in Afghanistan," he said. "Knowing which tribe, which sub-tribe you are working with and dealing with is very important -- both to understand the background in history and also to see that you are being equitable between the different tribes."

Duffy says another difficulty is the vast distance across the five provinces that the Kandahar PRT now has to cover -- Kandahar, Oruzgun, Zabol, Helmand, and Nimroz. That is why work is now under way to establish new PRT bases at Tarin Kowt and at Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabol.

"One of the difficulties we have is just the expanse that we are expected to cover. It's an all-day drive to get to Nimroz. Until we get a PRT there, there is no place to base from. A lot of our activities are within one day's drive -- maybe two days' drive. We hope to, by expanding the PRTs, have a base of operation where we can expand. So when Tarin Kowt, for example, is stood up, they'll have a civil affairs team that can base out of there. One day's driving distance will cover just about three-quarters of the province. And then they can start doing projects in that area," Duffy said.

Attention has focused on the planned Tarin Kowt PRT and the road project there because Oruzgun Province is the home of both Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and the spiritual leader of the Taliban movement, Mullah Omar. Indeed, U.S. officials say combat operations against suspected Taliban fighters in Oruzgun Province are "ongoing." But Duffy notes that the Tarin Kowt road is just a part of the overall reconstruction plan in the south.

"Actually that road is one of seven roads in the secondary road project that we are working on. The intent right now is to go from the ring road [between Kabul and Kandahar], or Highway 1, [and build] roads down to each of the provincial capitals -- influencing distant areas from the built-up areas. Right now, Highway 1 runs through Kandahar. But, for example, it doesn't go through Lashkar Gah, which is the capital of Helmand. It doesn't go through Tarin Kowt, which is the capital of Oruzgun. So we're trying to do those connecting roads to get us to the provincial capitals. The intent is to do those simultaneously. Six roads will be completed [to provincial capitals in the south] within a year," Duffy said.

And the reconstruction efforts go beyond road projects in Oruzgun Province.

"Along with the road projects, we have a pilot program that we've been working on with the UN, the Afghan government, and the international community, developing an integrated strategy that not only builds the roads through [to the provincial capitals] but also along those roads, there will be other connecting roads that will get to the villages that aren't along those main roads. There are schools and clinics planned for renovation and repair. There are 150 water projects, from irrigation systems to drinking-water wells. So it's not doing the roads first. There are all these other projects. So hopefully, within a year you'll see a substantial increase in all the facilities in the district that is north of Kandahar and connects to Oruzgun," Duffy said.

One reason that PRTs are able to move quickly on reconstruction projects is that they can gain access to appropriated funds without the months of bureaucratic delays faced by some international aid groups.

Colonel Craig Morton, who oversees plans for all PRTs in Afghanistan, says worthwhile projects can quickly draw funds from $40 million in the Commander's Emergency Response Program.

Colonel David Bennett, the Bagram-based public affairs officer for civil affairs projects of the U.S.-led task force "Victory," notes that PRTs also draw upon international donations. "USAID is, of course, a large player in that arena. We have something that's called ODOCHA. Those funds are for reconstruction purposes," he said. "The British have been very actively involved in providing funding for activities. The Germans are getting involved now. The New Zealand contingent has been funding. We actually have [South] Korean assets here as well. It truly is a coalition and it truly is an international participation in funding."

The finance mechanisms allowed the Kandahar PRT to resolve an emergency last year at the Kajiki Dam in northern Helmand Province when its last functioning turbine, a decades-old electricity generator, threatened to spin itself apart. USAID funds were used to bring in 14 mobile diesel-fuel generators that kept electricity flowing into Kandahar while replacement parts for the 9-megawatt turbine were being built. Today, the turbine is back on line and work is continuing to repair the other turbine at the dam.

Duffy says that when that project is completed, the 1-megawatt mobile generators can be moved to supply power elsewhere in Afghanistan.