U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said recently that coalition efforts in Afghanistan will shift from combat operations to improving security and rebuilding the war-devastated nation.
Workmen are putting the finishing touches on the Melan village school. The village is about 10 kilometers south of Gardez, the capital of Afghanistan's southeastern Paktia province.
The school was destroyed in fighting between Afghan fighters and Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. Later efforts to rebuild the school were stopped by the old Taleban government when it seized control of the area several years ago.
Rebuilding the Melan school might not seem like a military operation, but it is.
It is just one of a number of reconstruction projects being supervised by U.S. forces based at a nearby mud-walled fort, which serves as the headquarters for the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team.
During his recent visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the PRTs, as they are called, would be the key component of future coalition military activities in Afghanistan.
Colonel Chris Allen, U.S. Special Forces commander of the Gardez PRT said the PRTs work aims to bring long-term stability to a volatile area.
"It is all tied in together," he said. "What we saw in combat operations when you are out trying to identify bad guys and shooting people, that secures the peace for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, or as long as you are there. Reconstruction secures the peace for five, 10 or 15 years."
Colonel Allen's 100 or so troops have been digging wells and building schools and clinics for about six months. Coalition forces have been doing such work since they entered Afghanistan more than 18 months ago, but it was always secondary to fighting the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida.
Three provincial reconstruction teams are at work in Afghanistan, and coalition authorities say they plan as many as a half a dozen more. The PRTs are in areas considered too unsafe for private aid groups, or non-governmental organizations, but where combat has subsided.
"The PRTs exist to go places where the NGOs cannot or will not go," said Colonel Allen, the Gardez PRT commander. "That is what PRTs are there for. When you have a very stable area where NGO's or civil affairs teams can go out without security, my personal opinion is that is not where you would put a PRT. PRTs have a bit of muscle to them."
Many Melan villagers say they welcome the PRT. Standing outside the village flour mill, Haji Zarghon Shah, a farmer who has two boys who will be among the 200 or so children attending the new school, says he hopes the U.S. troops make the area safer.
"I think if they stay here long enough to bring stability I would be happy to see that," he said. "Also to give the national army time to be set up and [provide] security. Then they can go."
Some aid workers have reservations about the military teams. Paul Barker, who is the country director for CARE, a development organization that has worked in the Gardez area for 40 years, said military projects conflict with the work done by aid professionals.
"It is an unnecessary conflict," said Mr. Barker. "There are plenty of aid agencies in Afghanistan who have lots of experience and who can build schools and clinics and village water supplies. What we are not able to do and what we wish the military would do is focus on improving the security environment by training a professional Afghan security force."
Mr. Barker says his concerns and the concerns of other aid groups are being heard by the U.S. military. He thinks the provincial reconstruction teams now focus most of their efforts on projects that private aid agencies do not do, such as government infrastructure projects.
Colonel Allen said even though his troops are working in a hostile environment, they are lightly armed and depend in large part for their security on the support of the Pashtun tribal authorities in the region. He says his teams also work closely with local authorities and stress that their work is being done on behalf of the Afghan government and not the United States.
Colonel Allen says he has two missions: to extend the authority of the Afghan government, and to make southeast Afghanistan a secure place to work for aid professionals.