Bold, full of hope, and with a healthy fear for their speck-on-a-map villages, the Afghan elders arrived at this US firebase recently for a change-of-guard ceremony.
Expected to be a gracious host – but with little suitable food and after being caught off-guard by the elders who had arrived one day in advance – US Army Capt. Dennis Sugrue invited the handful of weathered men to join him for lunch on cushions on the floor.
The air was thick with concerned expectation. The US officers hoped to win these elders as allies against a growing insurgency with promises of development projects and friendship. And there has been some progress: a growing number of project requests, and even help finding insurgent locations.
But would there be enough food, when the lids were removed, to honor the Afghan guests? Or would the two Army captains find themselves embarrassed by a meager offering?
After the lids were swept from two large platters, the assembled party caught its collective breath. Two small grilled chickens would be enough meat to forge closer bonds between these Afghan elders and their American hosts. Business could commence.
"The American help is very important," says elder Haji Hamidullah, who ticks off four US-funded projects in his village of Mandagal, including water pipes and a collection basin, and a microhydro power setup. "Now there is now clean water, but there will be. At night, we stay in the dark. If we have light, it will be very good."
Mr. Hamidullah's village is one of more than a dozen in the poor Kamdesh district of Nuristan along Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan. US Army units of the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry moved in over the summer to pay attention, with projects and money, to a region that ranks near the bottom of Afghanistan's development index.
"If some [insurgents] come down to the village, we will fight them," vows Hamidullah, who is here to accept the first installment – more than $6,000 worth of freshly printed red 1,000 Afghani notes, in three bundles – for the $25,000 water-pipe scheme. The day before, US officers had doled out $75,000 for approved projects.
Trust was so high in Mandagal that the Americans would pay, that elders had already hired an engineer and paid with their own money to complete much of the work.
"There are a lot of hills and trees in Nuristan. In the day, the enemies hide in the trees; at night, they plant IEDs [improvised explosive device] and leave night letters," says Hamidullah.
"We're not afraid of these people," boasts Hamidullah. "People are sometimes scared, but they see the government is powerful and fighting them," he says, gilding the lily a bit. But he acknowledges that "without the Americans" there would be "big problems."
A firm stance like Hamidullah's is not easy to maintain, as pressure grows from the Taliban and other insurgents. In the past month, one prominent elder was tortured and killed, and a senior border policeman assassinated. Threats are common, and come in the form of "night letters," which appear overnight from insurgents, warning people that they will die if they cooperate with US or Afghan forces.
"Whenever construction is going on, [militants] come down from the hills to stop it," says Captain Sugrue, a civil engineer from Watertown, N.Y., who launched the first 15 or so projects with discretionary funds available for such work to US commanders. He says the rugged terrain makes Nuristan a "natural refuge" for militants looking for training bases.
"The insurgents can't compete with the money we are going to pour into reconstruction," adds Sugrue. "People who are likely targets are scared. If you are a shura [local council] leader, you are a target."
The learning curve for the Americans has been steep. The first time they set foot in Kamdesh, US troops were fired upon. Later, at a US-sponsored gathering of district elders, a moderate mullah from Mirdish, named Abdullah, explained the need to develop local relationships.
" 'If you had come to me first, you would not have been shot at,' " Sugrue recalls Mr. Abdullah telling him. "What he was saying is that there is a right way to do things."
Local know-how is a requirement to successfully balance the needs of the villages while navigating among the local contractors and spreading wealth. But it's an uncommon trait among US military officers in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose tours are often too short – and whose mandates are too uncertain – to gain such a detailed knowledge of an area.
Sugrue's first big project taught another important lesson. Engineers had chosen the worst 14 sections of the 20-mile road from Naray to Kamdesh village for improvement. To do the job, Sugrue tapped a well-established contractor from Jalalabad – some 70 miles away.
But when it became clear to locals from the Naray region that the road project was proceeding with an outside firm, they began to have second thoughts about initially cold-shouldering the effort. One group of out-of-town road workers was beaten up. While the project is nearly complete, Sugrue says "I have a guy with no vested interest in a doing a good job with the road; he's just trying to get away with his life."
Contracts are now made in conjunction with village leaders "to make sure the right people do the work, and have a stake in it." The trade-off is that, while there is a community approval for the work, there are local limits to technical expertise. Sugrue and his colleagues are now plotting the best way to do another road project that goes through 10 villages, and has become more of a political problem than an engineering one.
Of the 15 or so US-funded projects in Kamdesh so far, half of the biggest ones are now being handed over to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), which are purpose-built US military units that are being deployed across eastern Afghanistan in areas controlled by US forces. Each PRT includes two civilian engineers and civil affairs officers to handle big-ticket projects like roads and bridges.
Small, high-visibility projects will still be run by individual squadrons, at least here with the 3-71 Cav., so that US patrols have a reason to keep visiting villages to assess progress and make their presence felt.
"We are improving our methods, though there are still shortfalls," says Sugrue. Elders understand the long-term importance of such projects for the community, he says, though many villagers are illiterate and see the projects solely as a "job for three months swinging a hammer."
But there are larger issues at stake for some. At the same lunch, Mir Mohamed Khan, an elder from nearby Nangal village – where Army money will help to complete a previous drinking water project started by a European-funded agency called Afghan Aid – breaks off a piece of grilled chicken and wraps it in bread.
He says that recent US shelling from this base at insurgents who had attacked with rockets overshot the target. "They fired from the first village, and you almost hit the third village," says Mr. Khan. "If you come to our village, everyone will let you know where they fired from."
Outside, Khan pointed to the configuration of hills, where he said shepherds had seen insurgents in action. They had been trained by Pakistani intelligence, he claimed, and in religious schools."
"They call it a religious way, but it is not a religious way," says Khan. "They are enemies of both of us....The enemies are trying to stop reconstruction, but they will never do it."