- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

KAPISA, Afghanistan — With vast swathes of the Afghan countryside slipping under the sway of insurgent groups, the U.S. military is attaching new interest and urgency to the work of the 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams charged with bringing development to the country.

Where progress once was measured in Taliban fighters killed and captured, commanders now are as likely to count success in terms of soccer clubs organized and women’s centers completed.

“Instead of killing [Taliban fighters] and seeing the insurgency just replace its own, we need development as a means of isolating the enemy,” said Col. Jonathan Ives, an engineer from Washington state who heads up Task Force Cincinnatus in Kapisa province.

The new strategies are calling for a new kind of soldier, and the PRTs are finding them — warriors who are as willing as any to place their lives on the line, but who — like Col. Ives — can also recite from memory the United Nations Millennium Goals for economic development.

Capt. Eric Saks, of New York, recalls the first time he came under enemy fire while climbing through a line of boulders. He tossed a camera to a lieutenant and posed for a picture so he would not forget the adrenaline rush.

But Capt. Saks said he is equally comfortable in his new role as a diplomat, aid disburser and peacemaker — a role that has earned him and his fellow PRT members some respite from hostile action.

“The truth is that we are a little like rock stars out here,” he said. “We have not been attacked while traveling alone, only when we are out with other teams or combat units. Even the bad guys know we are not really looking for a fight.”

Despite a growing appreciation of their work from their superiors, the PRT officers say they could use more help. Col. Ives said he would like to see another 25 civilian experts added to each 75-member team.

“We need persons with degrees in government and law,” he said. “I don’t care if they are from the U.S. or not; Finnish or Swedish experts would be fine.”

The PRTs take an expansive approach to achieving their three main objectives — improved governance, better security and reconstruction.

Col. Ives and his officers count among their achievements the organization of a youth soccer league, designed — in a country where half the population is under age 15 — to give teenagers an alternative to listening to the pitches of Taliban recruiters.

“Tell me this isn’t a perfect picture of what people back home would want to help Afghanistan out with,” said one officer as a group of youths pulled out photos of their team in matching uniforms.

Members of the 25 PRTs in Afghanistan — which include civilians as well as military members — have mentored local officials and trained police auxiliaries, along with building numerous schools, dams and district government office buildings.

But, Col. Ives’ officers say, success also depends on listening carefully to the needs of a war-torn nation.

On a frigid day recently, a lawyer for women’s groups across the province, Zaheda Kohistany, presented Capt. Saks with a list of projects that would bolster the standing of women by educating them, informing them of their rights and providing them with sanctuaries from abuse.

Capt. Saks and Capt. Toni Tones, a female Air Force officer who was last deployed working with AIDS orphans in Africa, perused a blueprint for a new women’s education center.

“It is crucial that we try to move ahead with this project now, because if we don’t build it, the government will take back the land from us and use it for something else,” Ms. Kohistany said.

Other women in a meeting with U.S. soldiers asked for help saving a flooded girls school.

“I have been here for 10 months, and I am just now learning that there is a girls school here,” said Capt. Saks.

One of the problems faced by U.S. forces as they try to step up their humanitarian assistance programs is continuity — being on the ground long enough to pinpoint development needs without duplicating past work or investing in useless projects. A new U.S.-built post office in Kapisa’s capital stands unused.

Col. Ives said his soldiers have to assess human needs as well as human nature.

Identifying honest leaders is at least as important as killing “high-value” targets, he said. “First, we try to get a sense of what drives government officials: What is their background, what is the size of their clan and how corrupt they are.”

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