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In Afghanistan, US troops tackle aid projects – and skepticism

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2006


The white-bearded Afghan police chief is not pleased with his village "force" of 15 rag-tag cops. They have no radios, just two AK-47 assault rifles, and a single pistol with 9mm ammunition that jams.

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Afghan officials have also not paid police salaries for months in this remote eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan on the Pakistan border. An officer is said to be collecting funds now – the proverbial "check is in the mail" – but the delay is hampering US plans to start police training this week.

"Of course it's a good idea to train," chief Nur Mohamed tells the US Military Police platoon leader, as they meet under a rock overhang. "The day they pay us, we will be there."

Money talks in Afghanistan, particularly in this undeveloped region. Whether training local police or getting tips on insurgent positions, success for US forces depends on fulfilling promises of aid and reconstruction. That's the logic behind a new fight-and-build strategy that arms the US military with millions of dollars to spend on projects to convince Afghans, one village at a time, of the benefits of opposing Taliban-led militants.

But obstacles abound here. In the wilds of Nuristan, sheer rock cliffs and mountain run-off rivers leave few options for roads. US Army convoys have been attacked nearly every time they set out in recent weeks. The terrain not only makes ambushes easier but also frustrates logistics, like getting money and supplies flowing to Mr. Mohamed's police.

Mohamed tells the MP that his unit only patrols a few hundred yards down the road to the graveyard – "where you were ambushed the other day."

"The [insurgents] couldn't come here, but we see a lot in the mountains, and they [are armed with] everything," says Mohamed. "That is why we are so afraid. How could we attack them?"

"It's been pretty frustrating," the MP, 1st Lt. Candace Mathis from Rome, N.Y., says later. "It's hard because they do not have the food, ammunition, and blankets – all the stuff they need to be successful. All I can do is pat them on the back and say security is important."

US Army takes up infrastructure

So far, the Army has signed more than a dozen contracts in a string of villages. Work has begun on popular road building, water pipe schemes, and micro-hydro projects to bring electricity.

So when troops join the police chief and mullah for a visit to Mirdish village, there is a cautious welcome, and even gratitude. More information about militant movements is coming to the Americans from such villagers. More elders want projects for their areas.

"We like you Americans here, and want to work with you," the police chief tells the MP, before adding a warning. "We appreciate when you take care of us. But when you fire [into valleys] with women and children, they are so scared."

While officers deem these to be positive signs, the US strategy is long-term, and envisions keeping militants on the run throughout a cold winter – depriving them of shelter in the villages – as progressing projects convince people to side with the government.

But there have also been two high-profile killings in this district in the past month, of one cooperating elder and a border police chief, both claimed by the Taliban.

The Islamist militia has historically had little presence in Nuristan, but use it as a route to Kabul from Pakistan and an out-of-the-way area for training grounds. The murders have shocked and intimidated elders, and the 200 fledgling police recruits.