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US Military Shift Afghan Operations Toward Reconstruction Efforts - 2002-12-07

Children have been playing in the ruins of the Gardez Higher Teachers College since 1985, when the school was destroyed in fighting between Afghan fighters and Soviet occupying troops. Now, the school is being re-built, and soon, teachers will once again be trained there.

Reconstructing a school might not seem like a military operation, but it is.

U.S. Civilian Affairs troops, mostly reservists, with specialized skills, are rebuilding the teachers college and several other schools in Gardez, a small city about 100 kilometers south of Kabul. They are also building a health clinic, and digging wells.

Captain Dan, a U.S. army reservist, who, under Defense Department rules, cannot give his last name, is supervising several of the projects. He says the reconstruction projects in Gardez are designed to bring long-term security to the region, where factional fighting and violence are a constant threat. "The work we are doing is a long term solution," he says. "The short term solution is to simply have a security presence, to ensure security day-to-day. However, in the long term, it is projects like these - education projects and health care projects - that are going to allow these people to become more self-sufficient, and that are going to allow them to work, and to have hope for the future."

Since coalition forces entered Afghanistan more than a year ago, they have been involved in reconstruction projects, such as digging wells, building bridges and re-building schools, hospitals and other structures destroyed by more than 20 years of fighting.

However, such projects have always been secondary to the coalition's main objective, fighting remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. Now, U-S Defense Department officials say, with three-quarters of Afghanistan considered relatively secure, they plan to shift their emphasis in some areas away from combat operations and toward reconstruction efforts.

U.S. Army Colonel Phil Maughan is the commander of the coalition joint civil military operations task force in Kabul. Colonel Maughan says the new focus of coalition activities is designed to help Afghanistan's new government establish its authority, make it easier for aid organizations to carry out their work, and eventually, to allow coalition forces to go home. "Eventually, what we envision with these regional teams, is getting the central government out to the regions, giving them the legitimacy they need to support Kabul," he says. "But, we are also trying to get the NGO's [non-governmental organizations] and IOs [international organizations] and the U.N. to start working together. Once they start doing that, there will no longer be a need for the U.S. military and we can go home."

Gardez has been chosen by the coalition forces as the first of several regional sites where civil affairs teams will carry out extensive reconstruction efforts. Malooq Shah, an instructor at the teachers college, says many residents welcome the long-overdue reconstruction work.

Malooq Shah says the Americans are gaining good will from their work in Gardez, and the people of Gardez, long suspicious of outsiders, are grateful for the work being done to help rebuild their town. The Americans, he says, are earning the trust of the people.

However, coalition forces are still confronting resistance. The coalition base on the outskirts of town has been sporadically attacked with rockets and gunfire. Someone also recently threw two grenades into the U.N. compound in Gardez, forcing the evacuation of all foreign staff, and feeding insecurity in the area.

While many Afghans welcome the reconstruction efforts of coalition forces, some aid workers have reservations. Paul Barker is the country director for CARE, a development organization that has worked in Afghanistan for 40 years, and which is overseeing a number of reconstruction projects.

He says the U.S. military should stick to what it does best, fighting the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. "The core business in the military is security-related, and there a lot of security problems that are far from resolved in Afghanistan - indeed, if you follow the news, getting worse in recent weeks," he says. "I think, they are uniquely qualified to address those. There are many aid actors in Afghanistan, many NGO's, many U.N. agencies that are working full time on the reconstruction effort. I do not feel any need for military resources to be added to this effort."

Paul Barker and some other representatives of development organizations also say they are wary of blurring the lines between humanitarian workers and soldiers. He says Afghans could come to believe he and his colleagues are part of the military.

Coalition officials involved in setting up the civilian affairs projects say they will address the concerns of development organizations, but they say their reconstruction projects will go ahead. Military-backed reconstruction projects, they say, can have an immediate effect on an area, and Afghanistan's reconstruction needs are big enough to support both coalition civilian affairs teams, and development organizations.