The Alamo in Afghanistan
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GARDEZ, Afghanistan, July 31, 2003 It looks like the Alamo, complete with the Lone Star flag flying over it.
The red mud walls of the coalition's Provincial Reconstruction Team compound bring to mind the Texas shrine. But it isn't Jim Bowie or Davey Crockett manning the walls in a last-ditch defense of the San Antonio mission; rather, it's the men and women of the coalition against terrorism standing up for peace and security.
Joint Chiefs chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers visited the remote outpost July 30. He received a briefing on the effort to "do things right" in Afghanistan.
The teams are an integral part of bringing stability to the country. Before 2001, Afghanistan had been torn by war for more than 24 years. The instability allowed the Taliban to rise. That Islamic fundamentalist sect allowed the al Qaeda terrorist to establish training camps and planning bases in Afghanistan.
When the coalition went in to depose the Taliban and bring the al Qaeda terrorists to justice, the leaders determined that it wasn't enough to simply invade and leave. Unless the world was ready for Afghanistan to slip back into anarchy, something had to be done to improve the lives of average Afghans.
This resulted in the PRTs. The teams - three American, one British - are located in Gardez, Mazar-e Sharif, Bamiyan and Kunduz. The mission is to help the interim government establish effective control over the country. The teams operate in environments where nongovernmental organizations won't.
It is a daunting task. The Americans are expected to help an area the size of South Carolina. The population is overwhelmingly Pashtun, and Gardez was a stronghold of the Taliban. In addition, the population is divided into tribes, many of which are involved in feuds with each other that can go back generations. And rival warlords still maintain private armies in the area that can often obstruct PRT efforts.
The area borders on Pakistan, and "the bad guys" use this proximity to stage attacks and duck back to safety. DoD officials said the Pakistani army is working to curb this type of action.
The area is poor. It was hard hit by the drought of the last seven years and even the heavy rains of the last winter did not replenish the water table. The terrain looks like a cross between the Badlands of South Dakota and the Painted Desert of Arizona. It is extremely hot and dry. There are few trees on the valley floor and the rugged mountains make travel difficult.
The PRT soldiers can attest to the difficulties of travel. The roads are abysmal. "Sometimes you don't know if you are on a road or not," said one specialist based at Gardez. One trip to examine a project on one side of the area of responsibility took two weeks, he said. "In the states, you could drive the distance in four or five hours," he said.
"We bring our own food and water and try to buy gasoline on the economy," said Maj. Andrew Mazerik, the civil affairs operations officer at the PRT. "We're very flexible."
The civil affairs personnel are all reservists. PRT commander Army Lt. Col. Anthony Hunter is a police officer in Grand View, Mo., as a civilian. He is with the 321st Civil Affairs Battalion based in San Antonio. Other civil affairs members of the PRT come from a unit in Minneapolis. "Many of us have jobs as civilians that help us in this type of work," Hunter said. "We know how to train police and emergency workers, for example."
The civil affairs projects run from helping build schools, to repairing bridges, to helping in clinics, to digging wells. The reconstruction team would like to improve roads in the area to make travel easier. This would be costly, but it would also require local labor and would not only improve travel, but would also be a way to get money into the pockets of the region's poor people.
The teams have civilian members from the U.S. State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Justice Department, and will soon have representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The military and civilian personnel must work together to bring the full weight of resources to bear against the problems of the region.
There is a security part of the PRT. The small detachment is isolated, and while every soldier is armed, a Special Forces team works with the civil affairs members. Members of the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y., also provide security for the compound. It is the second tour of duty in Afghanistan for some of the young infantrymen. The 10th Mountain also deployed in 2001 when the Taliban was defeated.
The team has made great progress, but more remains to be done. Officials said that having helicopters would help them make better use of their time. They also said that having members of the newly trained and now operational Afghan National Army would help. "Many of the people here see the ANA and are very proud of the way they carry themselves and the fact that they don't steal from them like the Afghan militias do," said an official.
Another problem is bureaucratic: There aren't enough contracting officers to base with the PRTs. The team contracts with local nationals to build or maintain the projects. Those contracts are now processed at Bagram air base, near Kabul. "I know we want to teach (the Afghans) how democracy works, but we don't need to give them a full dose of 21st century red tape, too," said a civil affairs specialist.
Even with the problems, the promise of these teams are evident, officials said. Plans are in the works for more PRTs in other provinces. New Zealand will soon begin a team and other nations may join together to form other teams in other provinces.
The role of the military in the teams may diminish also. As security improves in the region, more governmental, international and nongovernmental aid agencies will feel safe to move into the region and provide relief.
In the meantime, the Texas and American flags will continue to fly in the desert winds of Afghanistan. And the mud-walled compound will continue to be home for Americans fighting a new kind of war.