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US forges new approach on aid to Afghans

500 US civil-affairs soldiers blur the role of fighter and humanitarian - with varying success.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2003


They look like soldiers, march like soldiers, fight like soldiers, curse like soldiers. But when the fighting stops, US civil-affairs soldiers peel away from their unit, and remain in local villages to assess the humanitarian needs of the civilian population.

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For the US Army, these civil-affairs teams are not just the key to winning the hearts and minds of Afghans; they may be the key to winning the war. And as the US enters another war in Iraq, this "hearts and minds" strategy, refined in the deserts of Afghanistan, the forests of Kosovo, and the mountains of Bosnia, is likely to be as important in winning over suspicious Iraqi civilians as US aircraft are in pounding the Iraqi Army.

"There's nothing hidden in our agenda," says Maj. Greg Liska, commander of US civil-affairs units in Kandahar. "But it's very easy to hate something you've never experienced before, and it's very hard to hate someone you know. Particularly if that person is not doing anything bad, and is actually doing what he tells you he's going to do."

With varying levels of success, American troops have been lending a helping hand to their former enemies nearly for decades. In Japan, after World War II, American troops rebuilt bridges, roads, and drainage systems. In South Korea, they helped the country become a regional economic power. In Vietnam, American military largess had a crueler side, as US troops removed farmers from their homes and put them into "strategic hamlets" to drain civilian support for the Viet Cong.

But the civil-affairs efforts being pioneered in Afghanistan - called Provisional Regional Teams, or PRTs - are not without controversy. The fundamental conflict, many humanitarian aid agencies say, is that the American military is taking sides by supporting the central government. Aid groups, by contrast, remain neutral and help anyone who needs help. When the American military blurs that line between aid worker and combatant, the Afghan people may become confused as to whom to trust.

"We want the coalition to provide security, so we can do our jobs and deliver assistance to the Afghan people," says Rafael Robillard, executive director for the Agencies Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Kabul. "But the very nature of the PRTs blurs that line between soldier and aid worker, and that increases our insecurity."

In some ways, Iraq may be an easier civil-affairs mission than the one required in Afghanistan. Iraq is a relatively prosperous, oil-producing nation - with modern electrical grids, sewage systems, hospitals, roads, and bridges. If the current pace of war continues, with much of this infrastructure left intact, Iraq should be relatively easy to reconstruct.

Afghanistan, by contrast, is a poor country with few resources, and has been steadily destroyed by some 23 years of fighting. Some US military planners feel that civil-affairs missions in Afghanistan may be required for several years to come.

"We provide the stabilization that is needed to get the aid and development moving," says Col. Phil Maughan, commander of civil-affairs units in Afghanistan, including PRTs in Gardez and Bamiyan. "Doctrinally, this is the way we're supposed to fight a war. But this is the first time we're actually doing it."