By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 27, 2009 - A trip along a bumpy, dirt road deep into the eastern Paktia province gives way to village after village of mud and straw "qalats," or fortresses, that have served as refuge for generations of extended Afghan families. Roadside vendors along the way offer carts of vegetables and fruits, most imported from nearby Pakistan.
The fields are bare. Families survive the winter living off what they have stored, or, if one is lucky enough to have a job, what they can afford.
There are no schools or hospitals. No electricity or televisions or phones.
Small children run through the snow-covered fields wearing only sandals, some are barefoot, to give a "thumbs up" sign to the coalition force convoy as it passes.
The locals know that with the forces often come food, blankets and coal, along with the promise of security, jobs, development and, eventually, a better way of life.
"They now see the presence of the coalition and the promise of the Afghan government and what it's offering as really a hopeful future that they might be able to bank on," Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Moy, commander of the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, said.
But this is a country that has seen centuries of war and a host of foreign rulers fighting for ownership of the land. It has fallen under nearly every form of government rule, each eventually leaving, or defeated by another. In their wakes each has left behind a poorer people who have survived solely blanketed in the security of strong tribal and family ties.
They are, to say the least, skeptical of any government.
"We don't want to just come into some village, showing up as the coalition and saying 'Hi, we're from the government and we're here to help,'" Moy said. "That doesn't communicate well in any language."
Moy and his team have spent the past few months reaching out to the villages, establishing relationships with those charged with the care of the families. The team works with tribal leadership and religious leaders at all levels to legitimize the Afghan government, pushing the message that its leaders are here to stay.
Using military support, they travel with provincial leaders into the mountains and countryside to meet and talk with locals, building a bridge between the government and its people and planting the seeds of trust.
It is a progressive balance of perception and reality, Moy said. On one hand, the people need to view this new government with hope, embracing and supporting it. On the other hand, the government has to do its part to begin to provide basic services to the people in exchange for their trust.
"Right now the government is reaching out to the people asking for its trust and confidence. In order to do that, it's got to show these folks that there's something to put trust and confidence in," Moy said.
This is a challenge, though, because the government has little money and no tax base. The services it provides comes chiefly at the expense of the NATO and nongovernmental agencies' support. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of development are being spent here. But the agencies work to fold Afghan government officials into their efforts, many times pushing them to the forefront of projects.
It's not so much that the people believe that the Afghan government is funding the projects, but more so that they draw the connection between the support and their government.
"The people have to believe their government is capable of doing these things," Moy said. "At the point when people place their trust and confidence in their government to take care of these areas that are vital to their lives here, that's when the government will have increasing capacity to perform those functions."
Success in this region will come, Moy said, at the point where there is that trust between the people and their leadership. Then the insurgents passing through the villages will not be able to intimidate the tribes. Locals will stop taking their money and start reporting their activities to the security forces.
But that point is still a ways off for this part of Afghanistan, still a hotbed of insurgency in the spring and summer months. For now, the strong steel walls of heavily armored military vehicles still separate coalition forces from the people. They are held at bay by the guns the troops carry. It is an unfortunate necessity, as there are still those among the tribes, and fighters from nearby borders, who want to undermine coalition and Afghan government efforts.
They bomb the roads as they are being built. They attack district government centers put in place to provide locals a way to reach out to the centralized government. And they attack coalition forces as they try to provide security in the remote regions. In most cases, though, it is the Afghans who pay the price for the insurgency.
"It's not us who are in uniform who are [always] getting killed or injured .... It's local Afghans as well. It's government leaders who are purposely targeted for assassination. Even the interpreters that work with us, they are targets as well," Moy said.
In truth, Moy's group will likely not see a safer province during its nine-month tour here. Each PRT builds on the successes of the last. Most of its projects will be finished by the team falling in on their footprint. This will be a long fight, with many stepping-stones in the path, Moy said.
He concedes that much of the progress to be made here is largely out of his team's hands and in those of the Afghan people. They have to accept the new government. They have to reject the insurgency. They have to help secure their tribal regions.
"We're trying to help the next generation of Afghan leaders ... to appreciate the values of freedom, open debate, democracy .... But that'll take a long time," Moy said.
The PRT tries to deploy a mix of projects within the communities. Some are aimed at providing jobs now, while others focus on providing health care and education for generations to come.
Each project builds on the other. Each provides a stronger sense of security. Each promises a better tomorrow for the children standing alongside the dusty road, holding up their thumbs to the troops rolling by.
It is in this sense of hope that coalition forces and the Afghan people will find victory in a land that has long promised little except poverty, fighting and death, Moy said.
"We've won when people have a real sense of confidence about what tomorrow's going to bring," Moy said.