Civil Affairs Team Bridges Two Worlds
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, May. 30, 2002 As veteran civil affairs specialists, it's up to Army Reserve Capt. Steven McAlpin and Sgt. 1st Class Juan Morales to bridge the gap between U.S. and coalition forces here and their Afghan hosts.
On a typical morning, the civil affairs team is in a sparsely furnished office just inside the main gate at this Afghan air base. McAlpin has just returned from a meeting, and Morales is fielding calls and walk-in visitors when an Afghan officer comes in with an interpreter.
Col. Mir Dirwish, who heads Northern Alliance security forces at the base, is concerned about a security issue. He says Pakistani drivers without proper identification or credentials are delivering fuel to the base.
McAlpin and Morales know tensions are high between Afghans and Pakistanis at the air base. A week or two earlier, the civil affairs team was asked to intervene when a Pakistani driver came on base with no identification. McAlpin said he told the driver he was lucky he hadn't been killed.
"It was like throwing a piece of meat into a pool of piranhas," Morales noted later.
McAlpin and Morales invite Dirwish and the interpreter to have a seat and for the next 30 minutes or so, listen intently as the colonel talks through the interpreter about force protection issues. McAlpin assures the Afghan officer that U.S. and coalition military officials at the base are working to establish a fuel transfer point.
Appearing less tense than when he arrived, the Afghan officer rises to leave, places his hand over his heart, an Afghan gesture of thanks, and bows slightly to the Americans. After a few more parting remarks on both sides, Dirwish grasps each American's shoulders in a hug and then departs.
"He's a very intelligent, very strong-willed person with a good intent. He wants to help Afghanistan," McAlpin says of the Northern Alliance soldier.
The colonel's visit is just one example of daily reserve civil affairs team business. It's far different from what team members do back home in civilian life.
McAlpin, a 24-year reservist from Rochester, N.Y., is a special education teacher in civilian life. He served as an enlisted carpenter for 12 years before becoming an infantry officer and civil affairs specialist.
Morales, a 19-year reservist, also from Rochester, works as a state corrections officer in Albion, N.Y. He served on active duty for three years with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., before joining the Army Reserve.
The men arrived in Afghanistan in January and their deployment is pretty much open-ended. They expect they'll remain for close to a year. It's their second overseas deployment. Both served in Bosnia, McAlpin in 1996, and Morales in 1997.
"It's funny, because I never went anywhere as active duty," Morales said. "I join the reserve and I've been deployed twice."
They were sent to serve as liaisons between the Joint Coalition Military Operation Task Force and host-nation officials. Their job has evolved in many directions.
"We've got the best job on base," McAlpin said. "The Afghan generals and the colonel -- there are very few people on base that hug these guys or hold their hands walking down the stairs."
"They have done it to us, and it's a sign that you're 'in,'" Morales explained. "That means that you have their trust." Among the Afghans, a man's word is important, he added. "There are no contracts; it's all word of mouth."
Rank doesn't mean anything to the Afghan people, McAlpin said. It's the relationship that counts.
"We've bent over backward to help him out, and he's bent over backward to help us out," he said. "If you appeal to a person's honor here, it's like butter on your bread. It's genuine. It's from the heart.
"We have never made a promise that we couldn't keep, or if we were unable to keep it, we'd explain exactly why we couldn't do it," the captain continued.
Since setting up shop, McAlpin and Morales have dealt with everything from shots being fired by a drunken Afghan soldier at a Northern Alliance general's house to helping restore a local school. The local school administration wasn't supporting the school because girls attended, McAlpin said, so U.S. engineers on base decided they would.
"We delivered 208 desks that the 92nd Engineers made to kids who had nothing," Morales said. "They were sitting on the floor."
The team also lined up a school bus for the students, did some volunteer teaching and started a program where Spanish coalition soldiers are helping to build a school. They also helped restore relations between coalition leaders and an Afghan general after military police searched his car.
McAlpin said the general was so insulted he turned around and left and vowed not to return to the base. The civil affairs team employed their reconciliation skills to get the general back on base.
"We did our homework on him and learned he was the only one who defended this land when everybody else left while the fight was going on," McAlpin said.
The civil affairs work extends beyond the confines of the office. The team visits villages and dines with local officials. After exchanging pleasantries and family news, the men get down to the business at hand. Both said they studied on their own before deploying to be aware of Afghan cultural traditions and sensitivities.
Their job is key to helping the military avoid cultural roadblocks and resolving problems that arise. "We get involved in bringing the people together to put out any fires that develop," McAlpin said.
"People say we're the buffers," Morales concluded. "We're the mediators."