U.S. troops in Afghanistan are not all involved in the pursuit of al-Qaida and Taleban fighters. A small portion, about 200 of the more than 8,000 American military personnel in the country, are involved in several million dollars worth of humanitarian projects. But defense officials are worried that not enough Afghans are aware of the aid effort.
Joseph Collins is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for what are termed Stability Operations. He says that topping the list of U.S. military-backed aid projects is the construction of new schools or the refurbishment of aging or damaged ones. "Schools for about 70,000 Afghan students. Sixty schools, about 15 clinics, 89 wells. In addition to that, in larger projects, the soldiers have supervised the desilting of many of the canals around Herat and they have also supervised the refurbishment of the National Teachers' College in Kabul as well as the National Veterinary Center which was the largest project they did. It was almost one million dollars all by itself," Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Collins tells VOA in a Pentagon interview that he believes these projects, about $8 million worth with a similar amount planned for next year, will go a long way to restoring normalcy and stability to Afghanistan.
But he concedes there is a problem. Many Afghans, even at the highest level, appear to have no idea the U.S. military is engaged in the humanitarian assistance effort for their country.
"When I went to see [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai, in my last trip to Afghanistan, I presented him a list of the accomplishments done by the soldiers. And his eyes grew wide and he said to his Ministers and he said to the U.S. Ambassador. He said, 'We have to get the word out on this' and it became clear in our conversation that what he was talking about was getting word out inside Afghanistan about all these projects," Mr. Collins said.
The U.S. soldiers, members of Army Civil Affairs units, are project designers and supervisors. The actual work is carried out by about 18,000 paid Afghan workers, according to the Pentagon.
Mr. Collins says the emphasis on education-related projects is largely the result of consultations with Afghans. "The part of this that surprised people when they went to the countryside and they asked the people what do you want, the answer came back time after time, 'We want schools. We want you to fix the school we used to have. We want you to repair the school that was blown up or we never had a school here in this village and so help us out. We want our children to be able to go to school,'" Mr. Collin said.
The projects are scattered around Afghanistan, usually in locations close to U.S. bases.
But the emphasis, says Mr. Collins, is on having military civil affairs specialists work in places where no other aid organizations are active. He says defense officials have no desire to compete with civilian relief workers.
Some civilian aid groups have been critical of at least one aspect the military's humanitarian effort. Earlier this year, in a letter to White House and Pentagon officials, several groups complained some military personnel were engaged in aid work while wearing civilian clothing, but carrying weapons. They charged this blurred the lines between who is a soldier and who is an unarmed civilian relief worker, and could lead to possibly dangerous confusion.
Mr. Collins says the problem has been resolved because the soldiers engaged in aid work now wear either full or partial uniforms.
He makes clear the military stands ready to give up aid work entirely when civilian groups are ready to replace them.
"What I have done is challenge them to make us irrelevant. When they get to all the places we are and bring greater skill and resolve to bear, we are obviously going to be outmanned and outgunned so we will stop doing humanitarian assistance projects and move on to something else," Mr. Collin said.
Mr. Collins says there is a distinct military benefit to the Pentagon's engagement in aid work in Afghanistan. He says it helps win the goodwill of the people, thus facilitating the military mission.
But of course, that is only if the people know about the humanitarian projects, something Mr. Collins concedes has not been the case.