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Civil Affairs: Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17, 2002 – Civil affairs soldiers are forging relationships with Afghans that help pave the way for civilian aid organizations and will help prevent terrorist groups from regaining a toehold in the region.

Two such soldiers, recently returned from Afghanistan, shared some of their experiences with American Forces Press Service and Soldiers Radio and Television Service in a Pentagon interview.

Capt. Britton London, a team leader with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., said many groups have promised help to the Afghans and never delivered. So, it can be difficult to convince the Afghans his soldiers are there to help them, he said. Not surprisingly, he continued, local populaces don't judge by what you say but by what you do. The team's challenge is to show results.

"When we go and meet the people in the remote villages, we have to come to them with something concrete," he said. In some cases, the team's concrete help came in the form of new windows on the local school and testing water sources to ensure their safety. Other times, the proof was in even larger projects, such as building roads or schools.

The captain noted the news media focus a lot on soldiers and other service members scouring villages for al Qaeda and Taliban members and their weapons, but not a lot of attention is given to civil affairs work.

One of London's team members, Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, said civil affairs missions are helping to win the war against terrorism. Andersen is a Special Forces medical sergeant. He provided medical care to hundreds of Afghan civilians in his seven months in the country.

"Civil affairs gives me a chance to ... do the part where the war can be won," Andersen said. "We're having a hard time chasing the bad guys down, but what we're doing through civil affairs is denying them a place they can seek refuge."

He said the Afghan people need to choose sides. Civil affairs soldiers reaching out and improving their lives makes it easier for the population to choose to side with "the good guys."

"They see the Americans and the new (President Hamid) Karzai government is the side to be on," Andersen said. "We're the friendlier people, the ones that are going to help them."

The sergeant noted this is a hard message for some Afghan people to accept. "Their whole lives they've been told we're the bad guys," he said.

London said it's also important for the American people to understand their soldiers are doing more than shooting in Afghanistan.

"There's a lot more work to be done than just the exciting parts you see in Hollywood," he said.

Civil affairs soldiers work to make areas safe for civilian aid organizations to work. London said his team made several food deliveries in conjunction with the World Food Program.

Both men expressed their hope that America won't abandon the Afghan people. "I'm hoping we don't turn our backs and say we're done there," Andersen said. "People seem to think the war is over and we're done, but I really don't think we are."

He said America should look at helping Afghanistan as an investment in international security. "It's something we need to keep on taking care of, and it's going to take a generation to do," he said.

Both also said they'd like to go back. "If the opportunity arises -- I speak for myself and, I think, the rest of my team -- we wouldn't hesitate to go back," London said. "There's a job to do over there."

Andersen admitted he missed his wife tremendously, but said, "I have her permission to go back."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDr. (Lt. Col.) Tim Counihan examines a deaf Afghan girl in the field. He's a member of the Army Reserve 947th Forward Surgical Team from Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, USA.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgts. 1st Class Jay Smith (left, in sunglasses), an engineer, and Victor Andersen (in baseball cap), a Special Forces medic, both of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., examine an Afghan village well. Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, USA.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. 1st Class Jay Smith, an engineer with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., works with a local laborer on a road-building project in Afghanistan's Orgun Valley. Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, USA.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWhile some of his friends don't seem to know what to make of the spectacle, an Afghan boy gives a thumbs-up to passing American soldiers in the Orgun Valley. Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, USA.   
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