By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 16, 2009 - The Paktia provincial deputy governor, a council member and senior religious leader yesterday loaded into a U.S. military Black Hawk helicopter and traveled over snow-covered mountains to a remote village in the Jani Khel district northeast of here. In a field near the district's only schoolhouse, the three stepped from the helicopter into a foot of crunchy, melting snow and onto the land of the Mangal tribe.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the three who are all from the district and returned to promote peace in an area that still remains a hotbed of insurgent activity within the Paktia province.
The village is surrounded by hills that in the summer teem with Taliban and other enemy fighters passing through from the nearby border of Pakistan. With no improved roads, it is mostly isolated in the winter months.
Most locals are farmers, storing up food in the summer months to feed their large, extended families in the winter. There are few jobs. Five dollars a day for labor is considered good pay. Some from the tribe travel to other parts of Afghanistan, or even outside the country, for work and send money back to the families to help them survive.
That is why, officials said, the locals are readily willing to accept money from the Taliban. A local interpreter said that the men are willing to fight, and die, for money for food.
To make matters worse, two of the sub-tribes in the area are feuding. The Taliban fuels the rifts in an attempt to keep district and provincial leadership off-balance and to prevent unity within the tribes.
Patkia Provincial Reconstruction Team Commander Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Moy, who accompanied the group on their mission, said the area was on "the fringe" and could be swayed either for or against supporting the Afghan government and coalition forces operating there.
This trip was part of the PRT's bedrock governor's outreach program aimed at connecting the Afghan government with the people of the province. It is the first such visit to the district and most in the village had never met the provincial leaders. Some have radios but few have televisions.
The group was greeted with enthusiastic hugs and prolonged handshakes, like family members who became rock stars and returned home. Children watched from the hillsides and men gathered outside their shops and homes. Women are rarely seen outside the home, and were not at the meeting. About three hundred men and boys from across the district turned out -- no small number considering the village itself probably has only a few hundred residents, and the district is likely the least populated of the 14 in the province.
A makeshift podium was set up at the entrance of the school and the crowd sat in chairs outside in the snow. Those without chairs squatted, eating snow and listening to the leaders speak. The school serves about 1,400 boys, with primary grades attending in the morning and secondary attending in the afternoons. School is out for the winter, but will resume in the spring. There is no school for girls.
Only five years old, the school is in bad need of repair. Many of its windows are broken, and it needs more chairs, books, carpet and some structural repairs. The PRT plans to fund the renovations of this school and the construction of another school in the district.
At the start of the meeting, a local tribal leader sang of illiteracy within the tribe, and of the country's tribulations after the past three decades of war. Other countries have developed, he sang, and have even traveled into space. Afghanistan has not progressed, he lamented.
"In Jani Khel we want peace. We want brotherhood. We don't want fighting with each other, from tribe to tribe," he sang in traditional Pashto, the language of the region. "We are brave Afghan people and we don't want to destroy this country again."
Progress, development and security were key messages in the stump speeches delivered by Deputy Governor Abdal Rahma Mangal and other officials. Paved and improved roads were strongly promised by the deputy governor -- roads that will connect the village to an economic future. Right now a road is being improved that runs from the northern provincial commerce hub of the Chamkani district, north of Jani Khel. Once paved, it will cut the travel time to there from about 90 minutes to only 20. Other plans are in the works for roads that will eventually tie the district to the economic hubs of Khowst, to the southeast, and Gardez City, to the southwest.
But, development comes only with security, officials said. Like a dangling carrot, local improvement projects were promised only if locals stopped fighting, quit taking bribes and started reporting enemy fighters. Right now, Jani Khel is considered the second worst district in the province for enemy fighting.
"If you want a project in the area, there must be security," the deputy governor said.
Because of the dangers, the prior PRT chose to ignore the area in hopes that the people would begin to police its own. But, there was little support there from coalition forces to encourage that security, said PRT Team Leader Army Cpt. Phil Soliz. Until recently, it remained an area where, simply put, "no one wanted to go."
Now, coalition forces are active in the area, working hand-in-hand with the PRT, offering development in exchange for peace and loyalty to the Afghan government.
"With the PRT involved, trying to implement as many projects as possible, putting as many people to work as possible, I think there is a good future for Jani Khel," Soliz said. "If we can get Jani Khel going in the right direction, we can pretty much get any other district going in the right direction."
To help with security in the area, provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Esmatollah Alizai promised to send as many as 100 Afghan National Army troops and another 50 Afghan National Police, all hopefully by the spring. There only about 20 Afghan police there now.
This would drastically reduce the influx of Taliban into the area and allow it to turn around, Soliz said.
The general also denounced corruption within the police ranks, a point that was driven home by the recent firing of the Jani Khel district police chief because of corruption charges.
The speeches were followed by a traditional Afghan meal. Inside the school, the key leaders from both the tribe and the province sat cross-legged on a carpet and shared a specially-prepared feast of lamb, chicken, beef, rice and flat, round Afghan bread called "dodey."
The food is served in plates on the floor. The Afghan sense of personal space is different than that of westerners. They sit very close and touching is considered a sign of friendship. There are no utensils. Meat is pulled by the fingers from the bone, or scooped into the bread with the rice. Here it is considered rude to turn down an invitation to eat, or any hospitality, and meals run as long as the conversation lasts.
After the meal, officials walked up toward the village along a muddy road, skipping over streams created by the melting snow, to visit the district center -- the central government's local office. A district governor is appointed by the provincial governor and works alongside a police chief, also appointed. Local government representation in Jani Khel amounts to the two men working out of a small mud hut. Wood is stacked outside for heating and stray dogs lay in the woodchips.
A new district center is in the works, but is on hold for the winter. Climbing a muddy hillside, officials were greeted by a concrete foundation with rebar shooting into the air where there will eventually be walls. There are some problems with the foundation, and the contractor will have to replace parts of it, but work is planned to restart in the spring.
No Afghan "shura," or meeting, is complete without Chai tea. It is served at every gathering, typically alongside a small plate of raw almonds, raisins and candy.
The group gathered back at the school for tea and jokes, but after a while the meeting took a more serious tone. The district governor began, again, calling for more security forces in the area, complaining that it is too hard for locals to withstand the Taliban.
But, a coalition forces officer working in the area, who asked to not be photographed or identified, put the onus for security back on the tribe.
"I cannot continue to provide projects and buildings and roads if the community is not going to be strong enough to protect those things," the officer said. "The Taliban will take advantage of fighting and disputes. If you're fighting with your brother or your cousin, they will take advantage of that, until you kill your cousin. They will make you turn on your friends and your family.
"You cannot let them do that. You have to be the ones that earn the infrastructure that everyone is here to provide for you," he said.
A U.S. Humvee was hit by and improvised explosive device in the district three days ago. No U.S. troops were seriously injured, but an Afghan policeman lost a finger.
The coalition forces officer said he held the tribe responsible, and gave them five days to turn over the men involved.
"I want to make this a better and safer place. But I need your help to do that," he said. "It's terrible that an Afghan hurt another Afghan."
At the end of the day, the PRT commander called these outreach trips "critical," especially for these isolated villages.
As Moy and his team work to legitimize the government and develop communities, they hope that the promise of a better future will outweigh that of a quick dollar promised by the Taliban.
A former military history professor at the Air Force Academy, Moy uses a simple analogy to describe their complex work here, comparing the setting to that of an early American Wild West showdown. The Taliban are the Black Bart bandits hiding in the hills who ride into the villages shooting up the town, he said, and the local people have little means to defend themselves.
Coalition forces and the Afghan government is the new sheriff in town who offers protection, and a new way of life without the fear of threats and even death.
"We're trying to send a message that counters everything the insurgency is trying to give to these people right now," Moy said.
That message, he said, is that the Afghan government is here to stay, even when the Taliban returns to the hills and across the border when winter comes.
"Families here want their children to go to school. They want to live in peace. They want to be able to have a job. They want to be able to make a life for themselves," he said. "The coalition is here to provide space for that to happen long enough so that there is a build of confidence in the government and in the rule of law and in all of the processes that go along with this new democracy that is just emerging here."
Spring is only a few months away, and brings with it a promise of fresh insurgent activity in the province. That translates to more risk for his troops operating in the rural, outlying villages. The last PRT lost two of its members in operations here this past summer.
How much fighting that takes place in this eastern Afghanistan province, though, depends largely on the progress his team makes this winter. And they work against the clock to sway the locals' loyalty before the mountain passes thaw.
"Every hand that we shake, every person we talk to, every ounce of Chai we drink throughout the day, gives us that much more of an edge against the insurgents when they come back and they try to use the tribal tensions that are out there ... to sway them against us," Moy said.