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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 Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2008

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.

Danna harman/the christian science monitor

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Barge Matal, Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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.