American aid efforts earn grudging praise

Military has unusual role in assisting Afghans

April 13, 2003|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KONDUZ, Afghanistan - The U.S. military is getting grudging praise for its humanitarian aid and nation-building efforts, even from critics who once considered such assistance a dangerous digression from its traditional fighting role.

Military units, called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are responsible for delivering the help. They resemble the Army's civil assistance teams that have always gone into war zones after the shooting has stopped; but the PRTs have more troops and more money and get projects such as schools, wells, bridges and roads rolling faster.

The idea behind the teams is to provide a security umbrella for aid projects in dangerous areas. The hope was that, reassured by the presence of armed U.S. troops, nongovernmental aid organizations would follow the military, working side by side with the Army's civil affairs specialists.

Just as important, the Army sees the teams as a way of conferring legitimacy on the weak central government of President Hamid Karzai. By acting in his name, the teams will give a boost to the Karzai development agenda in areas where his government is barely known.

Last week, the Army opened its third PRT in this remote northeastern corner - which, like most of this nation, was left in ruins by 23 years of warfare that ended with the U.S. victory over the Taliban. Similar bases have opened in Gardez and Bamyan in recent months.

The military hopes to have eight such teams running by year's end, each with 50 to 70 soldiers. Most will concentrate on reconstruction planning and contracting, while others will provide armed protection.

The military's announcement in December that it was creating the teams was criticized by some who feared that they would inadvertently make life more dangerous for humanitarian personnel.

That's because terrorists looking for a target would not distinguish between uniformed personnel and civilian aid workers if both were doing the same work, critics warned. The European Union, Care International and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, or ACBAR, an umbrella group of the largest aid agencies operating in Afghanistan, expressed reservations about the PRT concept.

The PRT program has received $38 million for reconstruction and operations, twice the Afghan civil assistance aid budgeted by the U.S. military the year before. It chose Gardez for its first base, the town in the unsettled southeastern portion of Afghanistan so racked by violence that it had become a no-man's land for aid agencies.

Since the PRT opened in Gardez with its armed cohort of 20 troops from the 82nd Airborne, violent incidents have declined sharply. A half-dozen aid agencies have opened their doors in Gardez since the first of the year, U.S. embassy officials say. PRTs have been so successful, officials say, that the program might be copied for reconstruction efforts in postwar Iraq.

Chris Kraul is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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