Building bridges to locals in Afghanistan
$43 million will go to reconstruction in five provinces in bid to reduce Taliban influence.
The generals and governor strode across the 230-ft. span in eastern Afghanistan – the longest Bailey Bridge built during combat since World War II, the military says – with an optimism they want to spread across this divided valley where US and Afghan troops fight almost daily battles against the Taliban.
"Once they see the joy of reconstruction, many people will come to our side," provincial governor Didar Shalizai tells US Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley. "They will run toward us."
"Inshallah (God willing)," replies General Freakley, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, using a Muslim affirmation of hope for the future.
This new bridge over the Pech River was inaugurated Monday and marks an early step in a shifting US strategy: Clear Taliban strongholds, stay on the ground long enough to reestablish government rule, deploy Afghan forces, and show fruit of reconstruction.
But the stakes are high in a region that – already five years after US-led forces toppled the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies – the American military has visited again and again, only to watch the Taliban filter back.
"Our persistence in staying here, versus hopscotching around Afghanistan, is that other valleys [hear] what's going on," says Freakley, in a later interview. "There were some valleys here that we were told we would have to fight our way into. And the elders came to the governor and said: 'When are you going to come help us?' "
A similar fight-and-build strategy is being pursued by NATO troops in southern provinces. They declared Operation Medusa a "significant success" over the weekend, and claimed to have killed more than 500 insurgents.
But four Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber Monday in Kandahar, who struck on a bicycle while children scrambled for pen and notebook gifts from the soldiers. Also Monday, two other bombings killed 20 civilians.
Tuesday, British defense chief Des Brown admitted that fighting was "even harder" than expected, and that "the Taliban's tenacity in the face of massive losses has been a surprise, absorbing more of our effort than we predicted it would, and consequently slowing progress on reconstruction."
Trying to turn the tide in Kunar Province, the governor – himself a past Taliban supporter, with a thick black beard – speaks to elders gathered on the ground under the trees near the newly built bridge.
"I can assure you, we will serve you in a better way – the government will serve you," promises Governor Shalizai. "We have plans to build roads ... the water system, and to provide job opportunities for your sons and people."
The people from Kunar are the "bravest people of Afghanistan, [and] I ask you to help your government bring security," says Shalizai. "Don't do things that make our enemy happy. This is a great opportunity for Afghanistan. Don't let it go."
But not all the men here are convinced. The adjacent Korengal Valley is divided, with villages to the north generally pro-government. Three villages in the south are deemed sympathetic to the Taliban and have been blocked by US and Afghan forces for weeks, ostensibly on the governor's orders.
Elders from the sanctioned villages deny they support insurgents who have carried out several killings of civilians – including murdering the child of one elder – in the past year.
"That's not true. The people of Korengal do not support the Taliban," says Zarawar Khan, head of the local governing council. "There are small pockets, of five to 10 Taliban. They attack and go back."
"I'm not happy about the American forces here, because they create a lot of problems for us," says Mr. Khan. He welcomes the bridge and other building projects, but not the blockade that, he says, has prevented vehicle traffic and led to unnecessary detentions.
"We support the Afghan government and don't allow any [insurgents] to come from our side," insists Khan. "We've said this many times."
"The people [Taliban] who are fighting there are our enemies," says Mohamed Jabar, another council member, with a long white beard half dyed orange. "I swear we don't have any relations with those people."
Encouraging just those sentiments is one aim of the US strategy in Kunar and four other eastern provinces, where $43 million has been earmarked for immediate reconstruction projects as part of Operation Mountain Fury, announced over the weekend.
In this valley alone – where rough-hewn rock mountains define the landscape – four bridges are planned for the Pech River, and a seven-mile, $500,000 road project to go the length of the valley was launched last Friday. The province has 317 schools, but only 56 with buildings – another statistic that the Army says it wants to change.
"It has been a process of separating the enemy from the people ... long enough to create breathing space to connect the people to their government," says Lt. Col. Chris Cavoli, commander of the 1st Battalion 32nd Infantry, of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division in Kunar Province.
Until his units arrived last April, the Korengal Valley was a "serious sanctuary" for the Taliban, says Lt. Col. Cavoli. Now, the blockade focuses on where "some elders and their families collude with the enemies," and is "designed to prevent movement of enemy supplies" into the valley.
The last five roadside bombs to be found were turned in by locals or Afghan forces. "For the first time ever," says Cavoli, "in the last few weeks we started to get walk-in information on the enemy deep in the Korengal."
Despite limited troop numbers, the US plan this time differs markedly from past efforts in these remote provinces, where Taliban – often based and supported on the Pakistani side of the border – have increased attacks this year.
"We've been in Korengal a multitude of times in the last four years," says Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick, a US spokesman. "We push the bad guys out, ask people to support the government, and they say they will. Then we leave and the Taliban come back, and the people are in the middle."
US forces are "trying to get over the hopscotch thing," says Colonel Fitzpatrick, and "will stay until the government is capable of putting in robust enough forces."
But that is not deemed good news by all. Among the men who joined the crowd at the bridge opening was Mohamed Zahir, who complained of civilian casualties during US bombardments.
"[The American] presence will not help bring security. If they stay here, there will be a lot of security challenges for us," says Mr. Zahir. "As a result of one or two [insurgents] they bomb our area, destroy our crops and destroy our business."
Battalion commander Cavoli counters that permanent security will depend on Afghan forces, not the US. There have been "very few" civilian casualties, he says, though he is paying compensation for a herd of goats killed in one US strike. "We strive that there be no civilian casualties," says Cavoli. "It's enormously counter-productive."