By Sgt. Timothy Dinneen, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 28, 2007 – The tomb of Shaeed Ahmad Shah Masood, "the Lion of Panjshir," stands on a hilltop overlooking the mountainous river valley which he dedicated his life to protect against Soviet invasions and Taliban assaults. Masood was the leader of the Northern Alliance, and he is a hero to many Afghans because he was able to defeat the Soviets, accounting for more than 50 percent of their casualties. In addition, he kept the Taliban at bay while they controlled 90 percent of the country, according to Army Maj. Clifford White, deputy provincial reconstruction team commander, Panjshir PRT.
Although assassinated by al Qaeda just days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Masood's legacy of peace and progress for free Afghans endures through progress made by Panjsheeris.
Panjshir province is a model of success because of the strength shown by the people living within the valley, White said. He added that Panjsheeris are providing the muscle behind security, cultivating a fertile environment for construction projects and humanitarian-aid assistance.
"We live in one of the best neighborhood watches on the planet," White said. "They do more than guard houses -- when we go on missions, they come with us. The security details are from all six districts so they know the people and the terrain. When we have problems, they handle it Afghan against Afghan."
Panjshir only has been recognized as a province since 2004, but its residents and leaders have completed a micro hydro plant for electricity generation, new roads for commerce, bridges, wells, schools, and a radio station to connect the remote valley to the rest of the country.
Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force 82, arrived here yesterday to help inaugurate another project. He attended the groundbreaking of a new public works building.
"The (Afghan) New Year provides a great opportunity to focus on the future of reconstruction and not a future of war," Votel said. "Public works will play a key part in the future of Panjshir sustaining a self-sufficient province. Education and agriculture are also important, but without public works, children cannot attend school, adults can't get to work and produce won't reach the market."
Votel acknowledged the positive security situation in Panjshir has made reconstruction possible. "Cooperative security here is a model for the rest of Afghanistan and, hopefully, the reconstruction will also serve as a model," he said. "It is a step-by-step process, and today is a big step."
The public works building will help with road clearing, water purification, landscaping and waste management -- many of the small things a community needs in order for the bigger projects to get under way.
"This is a nice, secure province because the people won't allow the Taliban here," said Saddeem, a local student. "People are generally happy with the American presence because they recognize they are helping."
White did concede there are some security issues within the Panjshir community, but at the end of the day, residents all recognize they must work together peacefully to succeed.
"There are a number of factions that disagree. However, as Governor Balu said, 'Panjshir is like an open hand with it's fingers arguing, however when outside forces try and take something from the valley or impose its will, the hand closes and becomes a fist,'" White said.
According to the latest Panjshir PRT census, Panjshir province has more than 300,000 inhabitants with new villages being discovered when exploring around the mountainous bends. It is a mono-ethnic area dominated by the Tajik tribe that is predominately Sunni.
White said even though society is conservative, education for both girls and boys is important to Panjsheeris.
"There are 55,000 school-age children, and 80 percent attend school every day," White said. "Of those 80 percent, 35 percent are female."
Panjshir province Deputy Gov. Kabini said he can tell the people of his province are growing more optimistic from the way their eyes and faces look, and the people are becoming more informed and connected to their government through their new radio station.
"We will not accept al Qaeda in any form of this government because they killed our national hero and attacked the U.S.," Kabini said. "These tragedies bind us together against al Qaeda."
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