Sunday, May 29, 2005

KHOST, Afghanistan — Maj. Carl Hollister says he has spent more time building schools and an electrical grid than fighting terrorists, but feels that his work has done as much as the force of arms to cut back Afghanistan’s insurgency.

Leading a convoy of armored Humvees through the dusty streets of this city near the border with Pakistan, the U.S. paratrooper says his troops are ready to do battle at any time with the Taliban remnants and al Qaeda militants seeking to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But as commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Khost, his primary job is to oversee projects aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Afghans.

Interviews with local residents suggest that the program is working.

“Life is a lot better now than it was under the Taliban,” said Atta Attaullah, who runs a small shop that sells DVDs to U.S. soldiers.

Security remains a major concern for traders like him, who travel in large groups because of carjackings and terrorist attacks because they cooperate with the Americans.

But since the fall of the Taliban, he said, “Girls and boys can go to school, and they don’t have to pay the teachers. The coalition forces established a lot of schools, water pumps and roads.”

Rahmat Ullah, a shop owner by day and a general practitioner by night at a local clinic, said the change of government had allowed him to complete his medical degree at Khost University.

“U.S. forces bring us peace and freedom,” Dr. Ullah said. “It’s worth a lot of sacrifice.”

In eight months in Afghanistan, Maj. Hollister has overseen the construction of schools, clinics, 25 miles of road and an electric grid that brings power to 1,200 households.

When his convoy drove into the governor’s compound one day last week, he was warmly greeted by a local official asking for news about the next big project — a factory that will produce prosthetic limbs for the victims of 25 years of war. There are 12,000 amputees in Khost alone.

The official, an amputee, also told Maj. Hollister that there could be unrest if the provincial government does not speed up the allocation of land to build housing for the handicapped.

Like many projects in Afghanistan, that program has been held up because of a lack of resources at the local level, Maj. Hollister said.

“If the government can’t support a school with teachers and textbooks, we can’t build one,” he said as he waited for provincial Gov. Mirjudin Pattan to emerge from a meeting with local clerics.

Still, Maj. Hollister said, he has taken great satisfaction in watching the local government get involved in running the country without looking for coalition forces to solve every problem.

“It’s not important that we do everything for Afghans — in fact, that would be quite terrible,” he said. “They have to develop their own human capital.”

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