- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan - Local officials, village elders and clerics armed with gold-tipped shovels gathered earlier this month to start work on an asphalt road out of a rugged valley ringed by Taliban hide-outs.

“We’re hoping this road will bring prosperity to the area, and the Taliban will move on,” U.S. Army Maj. Don Johnson said at the groundbreaking ceremony in Mahmud Raqi, about 50 miles north of Kabul.

The $3 million, 38.5-mile roadway is one of dozens of projects undertaken by 24 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in at-risk areas across Afghanistan.

Building on a concept created for Afghanistan by the U.S. military, the Bagram-based PRT responsible for northern Kapisa and Parvan provinces has set up schools, government outposts, deep wells and bridges, relying heavily on local manpower to improve and sustain homegrown capacity.

That effort has gained renewed attention after separate visits to Afghanistan this month by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones, commander of NATO.

“Afghanistan will not be resolved by military means,” Gen. Jones said in Washington after

his return. “The real challenge is how well the reconstruction mission and the international aid mission is focused. And fundamentally, this is the exit strategy for Afghanistan.”

Mr. Frist said the United States, Afghanistan and the world community “have to do a better job in capturing the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Donald Koehler, commander of the team responsible for the road-building project in Mahmud Raqi, said a key goal is to put an “Afghan face on projects as much as possible.”

Once projects are conceived, PRTs prefer to keep a low profile and work through nongovernmental organizations such as the International Red Crescent and local contractors, he explained.

Col. Koehler said his PRT has “boatloads of projects” in the pipeline, having spent more money this year $6 million than in all other years combined since the program began in early 2003.

The increased spending reflects a reappraisal of strategy after a summer of bloody battles between NATO troops and Taliban fighters in the south and east.

Even in a relatively peaceful province such as Kapisa, an estimated 200 to 500 Taliban militants are attempting to destroy reconstruction efforts and hold residents hostage to fear. On two occasions, PRT members have been ambushed by Taliban insurgents.

Critics question why the reconstruction effort has taken so long.

A report by the Senlis Council an international think tank with offices in Kabul, London, Paris and Brussels pointed to “dramatic underfunding” of the U.S.-led reconstruction effort.

About $82.5 billion has been spent on military operations since 2002, compared with $7.3 billion on development, the report said.

It argued that a failure to act more energetically on reconstruction had permitted the Taliban to regain control of the southern and eastern portions of the country and to begin spreading its influence northward.

U.S. military officials insist that it is not too late to win over the Afghan public with developmental largess and diligence. That argument was borne out in interviews with local leaders in Kapisa.

“We are very thankful for what the Americans are doing here,” said Mohammed Qasim, a former mujahedeen commander who lost an eye fighting in the 1979-92 Afghan-Soviet war.

“Yes, we still should expect more from our government, but we need to be patient.”

After the groundbreaking ceremony at Mahmud Raqi, the PRT delivered 5 tons of rice and beans to a nearby mosque for distribution to poor families during Ramadan, a month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

“Afghans have been knocked completely flat,” Col. Koehler said. “When you talk about what they need, they need everything.”

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