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Road-building, improvements continue in Afghanistan

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Tagab Province, Afghanistan – A Humvee grinds up a narrow dirt road in Tagab Province, about two hours east of Kabul. Tires have worn two paths along the rocky and uneven surface, and the Humvee bucks and starts as its wheels abruptly mount protruding rocks and drop into dips. Occasionally cars pass going the other way, south toward the head of the valley, which runs to Kabul to the west or Jalalabad to the east. Most of the cars are small Toyota Corolla taxis, and brightly painted trucks also grind past. This dirt road is the main route that serves the entire province of Kapisa. There used to be a shirt manufacturing plant up this road. Now in the villages we pass, the locals eke out a living from sparsely irrigated fields on the narrow valley floor.

The Humvee jolts to a halt outside an Afghan house. Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers mill around unloading gear near the house and the road. Other Afghan soldiers have already set up on four nearby hills. A handful of U.S. Marines are here as well, advising this ANA.

The area is next in line for development. The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan depends on winning over the hearts and minds of the locals. The intention is to improve the road, bring in wells, bring in doctors and generally win over the population by proving what a good thing the Afghan government is.

This area of Afghanistan is targeted for road improvements, well development and increased medical attention. PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE This area of Afghanistan is targeted for road improvements, well development and increased medical attention. PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE This is a mainly Afghan show. Where in other areas U.S. soldiers might meet with the villagers and arrange matters, here the ANA is doing most of the talking. That in itself is new. But the advisors have no choice – there are no U.S. soldiers or Marines in the area. French forces are located 20 miles up the valley in the provincial center, along with U.S. soldiers dedicated to developing the area, and more ANA too. To the north is another outlet to the province, the main outlet. But down here, near the southern mouth of the valley, an initiative to extend that influence from the north has stalled. So the Marines are here with the ANA, moving up from the south, hoping to jump-start the process.

It's not a good neighborhood. Two weeks ago the French lost 10 killed and more than 20 wounded in the next valley over. Usually insurgents are dispersed in groups of five, 10 or 20. The French happened to run into an insurgent force unusually massed, and were mauled by more than 100 insurgents gathered together, probably for a concentrated attack on a district center that never ended up happening. That's the luck of the insurgent war here; being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have dire results. The French killed about 40 insurgents during the attack.

The ANA soldiers are taking no chances. It is likely they will be attacked, because ANA and coalition forces seldom venture this far into the valley, and never have they set up a combat outpost here in the lower Tagab, said Major Dan Geisenhof, the chief of the advisors here. Unlike working with U.S. forces, if things go badly wrong there is not likely to be aircraft showing up and blasting the incoming insurgents. ANA forces do not rate that kind of instant support from the air. Nor is artillery in range, although there is a small mortar set up a few miles back. So these ANA and advisors are pretty much on their own if insurgents attack.

Geisenhof said the "outthere" nature of the business doesn't faze them.

"It's what I joined for," said Major Dan Geisenhof, the advisor team leader.

It's their business to take risks but minimize them as much as possible, added Geisenhof.

"It's nerve wracking if you're tied to the forward operating base," he said. "Its fine if you're in vehicles and are moving around."

Paradoxically, getting out and meeting the villagers is the best guarantee of security, he added. In essence, winning the hearts and minds is the best guarantee of safety.

Insurgent commanders often recruit villagers to attack the ANA and Americans. Take away the villagers' willingness to be recruited and the number of available insurgents drops dramatically, as the bulk of the insurgency is made up by villagers paid to fight part-time by the Taliban, al Qaeda, the HiG and the potpourri of insurgent groups that make up the war in Afghanistan.

The presence of this company and its advisors will in itself have an eff ect. Almost every villager is illiterate. Insurgents coming through spread the word that the Americans are devils – who will rape the women, sell their children into slavery and convert them all to Christianity. The Afghan government is the American lackey, say the insurgents. The presence of ANA soldiers and Americans, who treat the locals respectfully and pay for the house they are renting from a local doctor, will help. Many villagers believe the Americans are actually the Russians, and that it's a continuation of the war of the 1980s, said the advisors.

"In a sense some of them are just completely cut off from what's going in Afghanistan as a whole," said Chief Warrant Office r Todd Johnson, a Marine advisor. "And it's a very difficul t situation."

The next day the Marines drive to their base at the mouth of the valley, link up with a larger convoy and drive it back to the position. Two U.S. physician's assistants, medics and an ANA doctor will treat the locals. About 150 people line up from the two local villages of Cham Shenkay and Chinay. Malnutrition, diarrhea, dysentery aches and pains, and eye problems are common here. The Marines will do this again in a month and spend more time, money and eff ort on more extensive treatments. This is just the beginning.

It will take four months at least for the road to be built by the local contractor. The contractor tells the Marines he wants to start building from the north and work south. The Marines tell him they need to start from the south and work north, getting support as they go. The people look like they don't believe any of it will aff ect them. Sometimes it's hard to imagine the future until it lands in your lap.

Short URL: http://www.communityadvocate.com/?p=3415

Posted by on Sep 26 2008. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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