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Amid War, US Soldiers Aid in Rebuilding Afghanistan - 2002-04-12

While U.S. combat troops continue to hunt down al-Qaida and Taleban fighters in Afghanistan, another group of soldiers is combing the country - identifying humanitarian projects in dire need of attention. The U.S. military's humanitarian deployment in Afghanistan is the largest and the fastest since the United States began assisting nations in the 1990s in such places as Haiti and Somalia.

Cheheltan sits in a valley just 15 kilometers southwest of the capital, Kabul, but it is a world apart.

Like so many rural areas in Afghanistan, there is almost no infrastructure in Cheheltan - no running water or electricity. The thousands who live here have known only war and hardship for more than two decades.

Political instability and poverty have been particularly brutal to the children of Cheheltan, who lost their only schoolhouse eleven years ago. It is unclear why the school was demolished and who ordered its destruction. But there has never been enough money to rebuild.

When teachers felt safe enough to begin classes again five years ago, empty metal shipping containers from Pakistan were hauled over to the site where the old schoolhouse once stood. The headmaster of the school, Amir Mohammed, says turning the containers into classrooms was the only way to keep a roof over the children's heads.

He says he knows that containers are not the most comfortable place for children to learn. But the students would otherwise have to sit outside and bake under the sun.

The plight of the more than 600 students - mostly boys but several dozen girls as well - gained the attention of the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force in Kabul a couple of months ago.

The U.S.-led task force, known by its acronym "chickmotif", joined the non-governmental aid agency Hope Worldwide in finding local contractors and securing funding. Late last month, construction began on the three-month project to build a brand new schoolhouse for the community.

Chickmotif's Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Randy Duke, says the Cheheltan school fits well into the mandate of the task force.

"We've had projects that we've turned down because they were out of the realm of the funding we can do," he said. "We are limited in scope in what we can build. They must be public-type projects. We cannot do private industry."

The American civil affairs team, attached to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Kuwait, number about 200 and is made up of mostly of Army reservists and some Special Forces troops. About 120 are in and around Kabul working on some 15 earmarked projects. The rest are scattered in other cities across Afghanistan, including Herat in the west, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz in the north, and Kandahar in the south.

Their budget for the year is a modest $2 million. But Chickmotif says that amount will be enough to cover up to 130 public works projects, which includes rebuilding roads, bridges, and hospitals, as well as schools. Another goal of the team is to dig up to 100, 40 meter-deep wells throughout the country to ease water shortage problems in many drought-affected villages.

All together, the mission is by far the most ambitious rebuilding effort by the U.S. military since World War II. It is also the first time the military has been deployed for humanitarian work in the midst of an on-going war.

Chickmotif officials say they had no choice but to deploy people quickly to Afghanistan. A critical political goal of the operation is to shore up the U.S.-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai, which only has two more months in power before a new government - chosen by a council of tribal leaders - takes over.

But Chickmotif Project Coordinator, Kevin Oliver, says the mission is not about nation-building, which implies near-permanent involvement in another country's internal affairs. He says the mission to him is about doing a few things right that could make a difference.

"We will be here a year to help them get started," he said. "The workers here are all local labor. So, we are trying to help jump-start their economy and get them off on the right foot."

The soldiers here are doing good deeds. But they also know that their efforts pale in comparison with those of large non-governmental aid agencies. Those agencies were in the country before the Americans came and will likely remain long after the Americans leave.

But as task force members watch a workman on a tractor laying down the foundations of the new Cheheltan School, they say they cannot help but feel proud of their contribution.