US forges new approach on aid to Afghans

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

In practice, civil-affairs soldiers split the role of soldier and humanitarian, fighting when necessary, and then providing the first real-time battlefield information about where help is needed most. "I've cut the word 'coordinate' out of my dictionary, because the NGOs don't want to feel they're being directed by the military," Colonel Maughan says with a smile. "We don't try to point them in any directions. We let them come to their own conclusions."

The civil-affairs units under Maughan's command are relatively compact. There are about 500 civil-affairs soldiers in Afghanistan, out of a total of 8,000 US troops overall. All civil-affairs soldiers in this theater are US Army reservists, selected for their professional experience in the civilian world as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and contractors. The Army has only one active-duty civil-affairs unit; it has been deployed to Iraq.

The results from America's bolder approach to civil-military affairs have thus far been mixed.

In the city of Gardez, near the battlefields of Operation Anaconda, the first PRT team has already helped to rebuild schools for girls and boys, and created sufficient security so that NGOs can feel safe enough to relocate their offices in Gardez itself, instead of commuting from Kabul each day.

In Bamiyan, NGOs complain that US civil-affairs activities there have actually made the security situation worse. Some point to the fact that the same helicopter that brought in the supposedly humanitarian US civil-affairs team was used the same day to ferry out a recently captured pro-Taliban commander.

But aid workers point to other results. In Helmand, two wells built by US civil-affairs forces were sabotaged in January. In Paktia and Wardak provinces, new girls' schools set up by PRTs were burned down. And aid workers themselves have seen an increase in threats and outright violence, from attacks on their vehicles to grenades thrown into NGO compounds.

"This is a new concept, developed by a country to use humanitarian assistance for political and strategic and military goals, and it will be applied in Iraq and other war zones," says Bruno Marques, Afghanistan director for Solidarités, a French aid group that operates in Bamiyan. "What we do here will affect humanitarian assistance in the future. They aren't going to stop what they are doing, so the best we can do is create some guidelines, and tell the military: 'Don't cross that line.' "

Colonel Maughan acknowledges the lines between soldier and aid worker can get blurred in the fog of war. But he says that Afghans, like most people, tend to judge people by their actions, not by their uniforms.

For him, the clearest evidence of this came in the aftermath of the US bombing of a wedding party in Deh Rawood last year. In that incident, faulty intelligence mistakenly led a US AC-130 gunship to attack a family compound in the central province of Oruzgan, killing some 35 civilians, including women and children. "Our civil-affairs units were among the first people there, assessing the damage and the death toll," he says. "Initially the reaction was negative, people were throwing rocks at them. But eventually, after the investigation into the incident, people in civil affairs noticed a much reduced anger. We rebuilt schools in the area, and their attitude changed. Now the civil-affairs [officers] are welcome."

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