Monday, December 23, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan U.S. forces in Afghanistan are preparing to spend the holidays on one of their most dangerous missions yet setting up a base in an al Qaeda stronghold near the Pakistani border.
About 70 soldiers, civil affairs officers, engineers, medics and State Department officials are assembling here as a joint regional team. It will move to Gardez one of the hottest al Qaeda regions in eastern Afghanistan.
The goal is to help President Hamid Karzai expand the authority of his government and begin reconstruction projects outside the capital, Kabul.
“We saw some months ago that operations here were likely to change by the year end, so we proposed changes,” said Lt. Gen. Daniel McNeill, the force commander.
Gen. McNeill began talks with all concerned parties the U.S. and Afghan governments and militaries, the United Nations, Western allies and officers of the International Security Assistance Force, who serve as peacekeepers in Kabul.
He said that the United States faced “a chicken and egg situation” on whether it should first concentrate on ensuring security or starting reconstruction. Reconstruction, he said, “could lead the process because it would pull an improvement of security along.”
But he added: “We had nothing in any book that this is the way to do it.”
Gardez, about 70 miles south of Kabul, is the central town in a mountainous area near the Pakistani border where al Qaeda and Taliban fighters roam in groups of about 20, looking for American troops to attack.
On Saturday, U.S. Army paratrooper Sgt. Steven Checo, 22, of Elizabeth, N.J., was fatally shot while on patrol in the area. The gunmen escaped into Pakistan.
Washington has faced enormous criticism from Afghans and Western aid agencies during the past few months. They say that the U.S. military is not doing enough to help the Karzai government begin rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and other projects and deal with powerful regional warlords.
Mr. Karzai has approved the plan, but there are strong criticisms from Western and Afghan nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups and some European diplomats who had sought to expand the German-led peacekeeping force outside Kabul.
“Working on aid projects with U.S. soldiers will make us all a target for al Qaeda and confuse the population as to who is supposed to defend them and who is supposed to rebuild their villages,” said the leader of one European aid group.

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