Promoting peace in Afghanistan – with a lighter touch

A provincial reconstruction team's visit to a remote area underscores the challenges of winning hearts and minds.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sweetness and power: Cmdr. George Perez, part of a provincial reconstruction team, hands out candy in Afghanistan's Nuristan Province, which is one of the poorest parts of the country.
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    Nuristan Province: A US Army medic aids an Afghan boy.
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A provincial reconstruction team (PRT) has landed in remote Barge Matal, and everyone – from the elders up the mountain trails to the girls who usually spend their days hidden from view – wants to make requests, lodge complaints, and generally be part of the action.

Born out of the mantra that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone, the mission of these small units – 26 in total – is to coordinate with local leaders and do development work – thus winning Afghan hearts and minds.

It was not always like this. As the war here began in October 2001, there was much talk about the need for reconstruction. But a RAND Corp. study found that, even as President Bush was promising a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than postconflict Bosnia, Kosovo, or Haiti, and less than half of what later would be spent in Iraq.

Recommended: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.

Last year, though, the budget for reconstruction projects here tripled, USAID development experts were shipped out by the dozens, and the PRTs were given new status. The US has now spent more than $32 billion on assistance to Afghanistan – 32 percent of which was allocated to development and humanitarian assistance. That number, according to the US State Department, will continue to climb in 2009.

Today, it is easy to find Marines measuring footbridges, Air Force pilots negotiating with road contractors, Navy reservists debating the finer points of pouring concrete for school foundations, infantrymen immersed in solar-cooking projects, and field medics handing out packets of lozenges to curious villagers.

Moreover, explains John Espinoza, the State Department representative in Nuristan Province, there is simply more emphasis on such support. "While the amount of money committed to the effort is important, the impact of small, lower-cost community projects is also critical," he says. "Whether it's fresh water supplies, schools, clinics ... we are bringing immediate changes to Afghan communities. The long-term effects of that cannot be underestimated."

All this is being carried out amid ongoing fighting and a rising death toll. But while it is difficult to do effective development work without security, stresses Nuristan PRT commander George Perez – it's harder yet to attain security without offering development.

"Until we really have an impact here, in terms of healthcare, education, etc., Afghans will continue to suffer – and be amenable to ideological pressures of Al Qaeda," says Mr. Perez, a submarine officer. We need to give them a reason to be on our side."

Perez and others reject the argument that soldiers should stick to what they know best – fighting. "What does winning mean?" asks Col. Skip Davis, top strategic adviser to Gen. David McKiernan, who commands the approximately 70,000 US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. "Like in Iraq, our strategy must involve both fighting and building. We need to stay the course and be responsible for both."

Scarcity of just about everything

Nuristan, arguably the least developed province in Afghanistan, is home to the newest PRT, established two years ago. Electricity is scarce here, phone lines and hospitals nonexistent, and infant mortality is the highest in the country, with 1 in 4 children dying before age 5. Only a handful of roads are paved, and literacy is estimated at 25 percent (9 percent for women) – below the national average.

Barge Matal, set in the stark, snowcapped mountains of the Hindu Kush, is as far northeast as the PRT ventures. Monthly visits here need to be planned meticulously, requiring an airlift of the PRT and tight security. Insurgents regularly attempt to attack.

The Nuristan PRT has completed 31 projects at a cost of $12 million, and has contracted more than $60 million in roads. But little of that has reached Barge Matal.

Today, the plan is to offer a health clinic and meet with the shura, or council of elders, to determine priorities.

The heavily armed team arrives in Barge Matal on two helicopters in the early morning and immediately bumps into the shura – headed out of town. The elders, explains Mohammad Rasul, Barge Matal's deputy subgovernor – wrapped in a blanket, a wool hat pulled down snugly – are visiting a nearby village. They will be back in an hour. "No problem," says Perez, respectfully taking off his helmet.

As the medics set up a clinic, the State Department representatives head off with minipatrols, to find out how voter registration is proceeding. Some PRT members hand out hats and gloves to the kids.

Perez wanders into a local shop. "What's new?" he asks, striking up a friendly chat – through his interpreter – "anything exciting?"

The price of sugar is up, he learns. Sunflower oil is selling well. Roads are insecure. The Taliban are close by. And the Americans need to bring more hope.

Perez buys two cartons of strawberry wafers and candy and passes the time handing them out to a group of ragged boys, trying to get them to say thank you. "Tashukur, tashukur," they begin yelling. "Thank you." Clusters of men with dyed red beards and turbans observe the scene, glancing sidelong at the PRT's security men, stationed up and down the muddy paths and atop the wooden compounds.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the shura members return, but need to meet before talking with the Americans. Five hours after the PRT has arrived, and 20 minutes before helicopters are to whisk them away, they are ready to convene.

They need blankets for winter, they explain. The Army needs concrete to fortify its positions. The police need coats. And arms. The roads are dangerous. The proposed school location needs to be changed. Above all, they need security.

"Security is worse now," complains Mr. Rasul. "And we don't even have a new school." Barge Matal still supports the government and coalition forces, he explains afterward, "even though all the Americans do is visit us and do nothing."

"Let me conclude," begins Perez brightly, as the sound of the Chinooks is heard overhead and a half-dozen Americans raise eyebrows and tap watches. The commander talks about the problem of bringing in concrete to build a clinic because the roads are insecure; about the need for the village itself to help enhance security.

"We are committed here," assures Perez, standing up. "We will do our part."

More conversation will have to wait until a visit the following month. Perez and this team, having completed nine months in Nuristan, will be back in the US then, but their replacements, he promises, will pick up where they have left off. The elders nod.

PRT members across Afghanistan are used to delayed meetings, unrealistic expectations, duplicated demands, and corrupt contractors – just as Afghans are accustomed to mixed messages, a lack of understanding of local ways, and changing American faces.

Are hearts and minds won?

Still, hundreds of PRT projects have been completed. But how effective this seven-year effort has been in helping win the war, or even getting Afghans on the coalition's side, is unclear.

"There is a fundamental problem here," says Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "No Afghan can bring himself to believe foreigners are in the country for anything but a nefarious reason." These projects, he says, might well be welcomed by some locals – but they are "basically a waste of time.

"This is a struggle that will be won when we provide effective armed security for Afghans. That is what is appreciated," he continues. "Sure, we can give them schools and chocolate and they will be happy. But if the Taliban then come back to the village with guns and we don't protect them, they stop being interested in our projects."

The PRT soldiers defend their mission. "I am better at fighting the enemy than building footbridges, that's for sure," says Nuristan PRT's 1st Sgt. Willie Mitchell, a South Carolinian who has seen combat in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. "But ... this building ... it's the only way we can think of to move forward."

"We have not made it worse," he concludes quietly. "I have walked these hills, and I know we have brought some change for the better ... at least I have to believe that."

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