Kandahar, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S military officials and members of the Afghan central government met today with leaders of an Afghan militia force in Kandahar to discuss where to permanently garrison troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army.
Plans call for new Afghan National Army bases to be built in four locations across the country in an attempt to extend the authority of the central government beyond Kabul.
In addition to Kandahar Province, U.S. and Afghan military officials also are searching for base sites near the western city of Herat, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and the southeastern city of Gardez.
Today's talks in Kandahar included representatives from the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan and from the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
The U.S. delegates included a civilian engineer, military engineers, and U.S. Army officers who are helping to train the Afghan National Army. The delegation from Kabul was led by Afghan National Army Colonel Abdul Habib Mirwais.
U.S. officials say temporary structures such as tents will be set up first and that the bases will evolve gradually into permanent garrisons. Dining and toilet facilities will be the first permanent structures built, followed by barracks.
Three possible locations were investigated today by the U.S.-Afghan team. One is just outside of the Kandahar airfield, where recently trained soldiers in the Afghan National Army are now encamped. Another potential site is near the Blue Mosque in Kandahar. The third location is to the north of Kandahar's city limits.
Initial plans called for a groundbreaking ceremony for a base in Kandahar Province by the end of next week. But those plans have been pushed back amidst a U.S.-led offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters that was launched 11 days ago across southern, southeastern, and eastern Afghanistan.
The Afghan Defense Ministry has final approval authority on all of the base locations. U.S. officials say they hope a definitive decision will be made soon on a Kandahar site so that construction can start on temporary facilities in about a month. They hope recent graduates of their training program will be able to move in during the summer.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces are pushing forward with their plans to expand bases for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in southern Afghanistan. Those bases serve as regional headquarters for reconstruction projects by coalition forces. The PRTs in the south also have U.S. infantry detachments that conduct security patrols.
U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Duffy, who is in charge of PRT expansion across five southern Afghan provinces, told RFE/RL that the next bases will be set up in Oruzgun Province north of Kandahar and in the southwestern province of Helmand.
"We're intending to build a PRT in Tarin Kowt, which is the provincial capital [of Oruzgun Province]. That is supposed to be operational no later than June of this year. Tarin Kowt and Lashkar Ghar [in Helmand Province] are the two PRTs that are going to be starting up very close to here. The security, the overnight party, they'll go in [and] do reconnaissance [to] determine sites. They'll have to do a bidder's conference, find a contractor, actually do construction. There's a lot of infrastructure that is necessary for a PRT -- the barracks, the dining facilities, the water. All that has to be in place. That will be started very soon," Duffy said.
Duffy says the PRT program is another way to strengthen the authority of the Afghan central government outside of Kabul by showing villagers in remote regions that coalition forces are bringing security to their areas and helping to rebuild the war-torn country.