By Jack Holt
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 9, 2008 - Important progress is being made in NATO's Afghan Regional Security Integration Command South area of operations, the commander there told bloggers and online journalists in a June 6 conference call. "Nothing really too sexy, but actually it's very important stuff in a counterinsurgency that you are able to build up the capacity, and then using the reconstruction money and development monies that we have, we're able to reach out to the Afghan civilians so that we can build better relationships with them," Marine Corps Col. Thomas J. McGrath said. "I'm talking about roads and helping them farm, sending out tools, and things of that nature."
ARSIC South has responsibility for the restive areas of southern Afghanistan in Uruzgan, Zabul, Kandahar, and Helmand provinces. Based in Kandahar, McGrath is the principal advisor, trainer and mentor for the Afghan national security forces, and is responsible for the way ahead for the army and police.
The deployment of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, into the area as Afghan National Police training teams has generated the need for operating bases. Fourteen forward operating bases are being constructed from the ground up.
"The 2-7 is very robust," McGrath said. "They had the Iraq police mission last year; they come in with all kinds of experience. There's a lot of momentum going on here right now in the Kandahar region."
The mission doesn't stop with training the Afghan security forces, the colonel noted. "We want to train up the police, but we also want to show the population that we're stabilizing things," he said. "So we're going to pave roads; we're going to dig wells; we're going to help give them seed for farming, tools and things of that nature. And that allows you to build that relationship with them."
Having spent almost $2 million in Commander's Emergency Response Program funds for projects throughout southern Afghanistan building schools, orphanages, irrigation systems, wells, community development, McGrath said, he has about $600,000 worth of projects in progress, and the results of the efforts of the past year are beginning to show.
"Several are agricultural projects, which are important to sustaining the villages," he said. "It's a very rural society down here -- very, very austere. So this is very important. We handed out almost 200 tons of wheat over the wintertime, and there's wheat being grown all over Afghanistan.
"And actually, what I've been told is the wheat price is higher than the poppy price, so we may have had some good luck in this," McGrath added.
A weapons buy-back program exists, McGrath said, and the command rewards people who provide useful information about enemy forces, weapons caches, and locations of improvised explosive devices.
"I'll buy weapons back," he said, "but we haven't been active about it. We do have a special rewards program that I have money for, where people, if they turn in IED locations, Taliban weapons caches and things of that nature, we'll pay them. And that's a very active program. It's been very successful."
The colonel recalled that, earlier this spring, an Afghan man ran out into a road to try to notify a coalition embedded training team about a roadside bomb. "And unfortunately, the IED went off and the guy got wounded," he said. "We were able to go back and help him get medical care and also make a payment to him and his family. It just shows you that the Afghan people are looking for security. They want the Taliban to go away."
Progress also is being made with respect to building the capacity of the Afghan security forces with the completion of a fully functioning hospital. Built for the Afghan Defense Ministry and located with the Afghan National Army's 205th Hero Corps, the six-month old facility has operating rooms, X-ray facilities and all the different departments that you'd see in a regular hospital.
"I have 16 U.S. Air Force medical embedded trainers with them who assist the doctors and the other medical folks there to take care of the ANA, not just for emergencies, because we bring in a lot of those who have been involved in combat," McGrath said, "but also normal medical issues that you would see in any hospital across the United States, whether it's lab testing, X-rays, dental care, things of that nature."
The hospital is designed for use by both the Afghan army and police, and is a morale-booster among the Afghan troops, McGrath said.
"So not only are we training the police and the army very rigorously and very vigorously throughout the region, but we're also involved in the entire counterinsurgency way of doing things, which just isn't the kinetic thing; it's also the non-kinetic," he said. "And that pays off quite handsomely when we do our operations. "And I think we're at a tipping point, if you will, in moving forward with huge steps."
(Jack Holt works in the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)