Civil Affairs Team Works to Establish Security, Stability
By Staff Sgt. Dave S. Thompson, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, 2003 The lone "improved road" leading from Kandahar Air Field to Kandahar City is a stretch of highway notorious for obliterating axles and shredding the tires of unsuspecting motorists. Pitted with potholes and pavement irregularities, the five-mile trek challenges even the most experienced of drivers. On both sides of the road, herds of camels and goats roam freely on the desolate landscape. In the distance, the mountains, looming like angry gods, shadow the fading horizon.
A five-vehicle civil affairs convoy closed in on the entrance to Kandahar City -- two large portals, known to westerners as the "Golden Arches," welcoming the visitors to a metropolis lost in time.
Civil affairs is responsible for assessing the needs of the community and facilitating the means to improve the lives of the people here. Members of the U.S. Army's 407th Civil Affairs Team have run this gauntlet more times than they can remember. They have become remarkably familiar with the "survival of the fittest" street mentality fostered here.
Since arriving in Afghanistan July 7, the Army Reserve unit from Twin Cities, Minn., has made significant progress in its effort to "win the hearts and minds of people" in this region.
"We are the arm of the United States Congress, and our mission is to facilitate positive change to the infrastructure of this country," said Sgt. Jessie Gibbons, team noncommissioned officer in charge.
Maj. Victoria Goodge, from Minneapolis, commands the six-soldier team. She deals directly with local men, who historically have regarded women as less than equals. "Amazingly, I have not experienced any prejudices (from the men I deal with). They have been absolutely wonderful. They know I am the team leader and treat me with the utmost respect and courtesy," she said.
Late last week, the team went on a two-fold mission -- to attend a ceremony commemorating the opening of a school recently rebuilt after sustaining significant war damage, followed by a visit to the Kandahar Hospital.
With six Afghan militia soldiers along to provide added security, the convoy of pickup trucks twisted its way through the maze of congestion that is Kandahar City. The streets were lined with shops and vendors, some among them selling hanging slabs of freshly killed meats, some others an assortment of fruits and vegetables. A mass of pedestrians and bicyclists crowded the streets, crossing wherever they pleased, seemingly oblivious to the hordes of honking motorists, who all seemed to be in a hurry.
Gibbons said he knows change in this country won't come easy. "It's going to take time a long time," he said. "But we're doing all we can, and taking it one step at a time."
The civil affairs convoy turned suddenly off Main Street onto a filthy dirt road en route to the remote Organ Dab district. Plumes of dust engulfed the vehicles as they wound their way toward the Abdullah Mullah Wassi School.
"We know there are bad guys out here (who) don't like what we are doing," says Goodge. "All in all, we have been extremely fortunate. The (Afghan militia) guys are great, and they know the city. We don't get nervous unless we see them getting nervous."
A narrow, gated entrance, barely wide enough to accommodate a standard sedan, marked the location of the school. The team cautiously maneuvered its pickup trucks into the tiny courtyard and quickly set up a perimeter guard post.
The school, seemingly out of place in the setting of mud huts and dirt roads, is freshly painted a brilliant white with light green trim. A trickling stream runs along one side of the school, and shade trees offer welcome relief from the relentless glare of the sun.
Goodge and her interpreter, Farid, were escorted to their seats among the school children, teachers and various guests and speakers for the ceremony.
This event commanded the presence of the governor, the minister of education, the village leader and the district mullah. As they took turns offering thanks and support for the efforts of civil affairs and the U.S. government, a look of accomplishment washed over Goodge's face. Speaking through her interpreter, she pledged continued efforts to reconstitute the region and thanked the officials for their collective cooperation on the project. She also offered high praise to the teachers, and concluded by saying, "Children are the future of Afghanistan. The children (who) attend this school are the key to a lasting peace in Afghanistan."
At the end of the ceremony, the children crowded curiously around the soldiers. Innocent eyes soaked in every move and gesture as the team handed out pens and pencils, books and blankets to their outstretched hands. They have come to expect these tokens of gifts from the Americans, team members said.
As the civil affairs team left the school and made its way across town toward the Kandahar Hospital, signs of progress were evident in the eyes of the people. They waved heartily at the passing soldiers, many giving the thumbs-up symbol of goodwill. The hazy sky was awash with multicolored kites. Women -- rarely seen unescorted during the rule of the Taliban -- now roamed the city unimpeded.
"These things are all new to us. We used to get arrested for as little as playing music," said an Afghan militia soldier affectionately known as "Smiley." Wearing American desert fatigues with staff sergeant stripes given to him by one of the civil affairs crew, he vigorously directed traffic from the bed of the second pickup.
After distributing medical supplies at the hospital, the team began yet another harrowing trip through Kandahar City and the safety of the airfield.
(Army Staff Sgt. Dave S. Thompson is assigned to the 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)