GARDEZ, Afghanistan — In a war fought mostly by secret warriors from Special
Forces units, Provincial Reconstruction Teams are the friendly public face of
the U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan.
An expanding effort to bring stability to Afghanistan's wild, impoverished
regions is one piece of a two-part strategy to defeat the bad guys, said
reconstruction team soldiers, officers and civilians in remote Gardez.
If the PRT mission of extending security outside Kabul fails, so will the
military mission, said Lt. Col. Dan Breckel, Gardez PRT commander with the
Oregon-based 364th Civil Affairs Brigade.
"Security and prosperity go hand and hand," Breckel said. Soldiers can chase
Taliban and al-Qaida out of the surrounding Paktia province, he said, but if
the central government can't prove its value to locals, they'll welcome them
"Both grow together, or we go down the toilet together," he said.
If reconstruction teams fail to extend the Afghan government's authority from
Kabul to the provinces, "there is no Plan B," Breckel said.
Gardez was the first of six PRTs, said Col. David Bennett, Civil Affairs
spokesman in Afghanistan. A year in, the Gardez team has built $2.5 million
worth of projects including six schools, said Maj. Brad Domby, an engineer
assigned to the PRT.
Combat-at-arms soldiers often deride civil affairs efforts as window
dressing, but Breckel stresses that his mission is a long way from handing out
Though this is the oldest PRT site, Gardez — 31 miles from the Pakistani
border — is still a war zone. Chinook helicopters fly in from Bagram, unloading
grim, M-4 toting CIA operatives and jovial Special Forces soldiers with their
longer hair and beards.
Down the hill is the reconstruction team's fort, basically a warren of
billets, a dining facility and a tactical operations center inside mud walls.
If locals ask the local leader for irrigation, and they get it courtesy of
the nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs, or the U.S. Army, it makes
the fledgling government look responsive, said Hank Nichols, U.S. Agency for
International Development field program officer at Gardez. "Before that, how
did they know they had a government?"
Reconstruction team officials make certain that locals know the government in
Kabul and its friend the U.S. military can make real improvements in their
lives: roads, electricity, schools, clinics, water.
Army officials plan to turn over reconstruction operations to the United
Nations, coalition partners and the local governments, "and the U.S. presence
goes away," Breckel said. Before that can happen, the PRTs have to go to areas
too dangerous for aid groups.
Reconstruction team officials are also candid about problems.
Civil affairs operations ceased in the volatile town of Skhin after attacks
on the firebase. In the sprawling grit of Gardez, insurgents set off bombs four
consecutive days last week. A Taliban commander told Reuters the bombing that
killed 16 people in Kandahar was a botched attempt to destroy the
reconstruction team there.
Fundamentally, there are simply too few personnel to handle the mission of
trying to modernize the lives of people essentially living in the 17th century.
Yet, U.S. commanders announced recently that reconstruction teams would expand
in an effort to provide security in southern and eastern border regions where
Taliban and al-Qaida attacks are increasing.
Expanding teams will improve security and accelerate development, said Lt.
Gen. David Barno in December.
Plans call for having teams in all 32 of Afghanistan's provinces, according
to Gardez reconstruction team officials.
"Lieutenant General Barno wants us to push these people out, and that's how
we're going to win the war," leaving Afghanistan a moderate Islamic republic
and western ally, Breckel said.
But expansion is proving problematic.
When Breckel's reservists took over at Gardez three weeks ago, they found
they were going to have one, 25-person team for their huge area, down from two
teams the previous rotation. There are only 4,500 people in civil affairs, and
90 percent are reservists, Bennett said. All are either coming back from
deployments, deployed or getting ready to deploy, he said.
Still, team members soldier on at Gardez, and clearly there is passion for
the job, somewhat tempered by the reality of myriad missions — from security to
Domby, the reconstruction team engineer, worked on almost 50 projects during
his deployment. He left last week. A reservist from Texas, he said he found the
work so fulfilling that he plans to come back on active duty and return to
The PRT effort hinges on "getting to the kids," said Staff Sgt. Kirk Hill, a
medic from the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade with a degree in human services.
When insurgents planted mines in culverts outside Firebase Gardez, local
children came to the base and led soldiers to the mines, said Hill and Domby.
The reconstruction team effort will work, Hill said, but the Gardez team is
up against roving bands of fundamentalist preachers who take over local mosques
and spew Taliban rhetoric.
One sign of success is that al-Qaida is actually copying reconstruction
teams, setting up its own aid operation in the town of Skhin.
"They're learning from us. But they don't have the resources of the NGOs," he
said. The vast majority of Afghans will support "whatever brings stability."
"It's going to take a long time to raise up the population to the point they
can make an educated decision" about governance, said Staff Sgt. Tom Mitchell,
a Minnesotan who has been at Gardez for a year and recently extended his tour.
"It's hard to do [psychological operations] when people can't even read the
Moreover, he said, there can be no stability until the border with Pakistan
is sealed, stopping the influx of Taliban and al-Qaida.
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