War on Terrorism

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Projects Prove Difficult, But Key to Rebuilding Efforts

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

Feb. 12, 2009 - When Air Force Maj. Kimberly Riggs dons all of her "battle rattle," it looks as if it weighs more than she does. The chief engineer for the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan's Paktia province originally wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and become a pilot when she joined the Air Force 10 years ago. But she is shorter than the 5 feet, 4 inches tall the Air Force requires of pilots, and she couldn't get a waiver, so, she became a civil engineer instead.

Now, despite her small physical stature, Riggs has become one of the largest local figures involved in doling out millions of dollars in rebuilding funds.

Riggs leads the engineering staff on the PRT, which reviews, develops, secures funding for, and oversees nearly $100 million worth of projects designed to help rebuild both the local government and the villages scattered across the rural province's 14 districts.

The PRT is one of a dozen such U.S.-led teams in eastern Afghanistan, a region about the size of Rhode Island that has long been a stronghold of insurgent groups. The area serves as a staging area, officials said, and most are passing through from Pakistan, only about 45 miles away from here. The province is home to nearly a half-million people.

Once PRT members identify projects, Riggs and her staff determine if they are feasible, develop the scope of work, review proposals, hire contractors and assess the finished job. With $30 million in active projects and another $60 million on the board awaiting funding, it's no small task.

Riggs admits to, at times, wanting to pull her hair out.

"Managing that many projects, even in the states, would be challenging," she said. "And when you add in the other aspects of security, and availability of resources, the language barrier, cultural differences, differences in construction technique, plus the mission planning just to get out the site, it's extremely challenging. It's a lot of work; it's a lot of projects."

The language barrier probably is the hardest obstacle to work through, Riggs said. Project specifications are detailed and difficult to convey, even in English.

"Trying to use an interpreter, it's challenging to get the right message across," she said. "Negotiating is always a challenge, and negotiating between different languages ... is difficult."

Visiting the 60 or so project sites is no simple task, either. Because of security concerns, planning a visit can take as long as a day for a single site. Poor roads, or relying on aviation support that depends on clear weather, can make site visits time-consuming and challenging.

And finding contractors willing to work in some of the most dangerous areas is problematic. Those bids usually are higher than they'd normally be, because the companies build the extra costs for providing security into the bid. And sometimes, after a project is built, it becomes the target of insurgents wanting to undermine the efforts of the local government and coalition forces.

This is especially true in the province's hotly contested Zormat district. Few projects are under way there, because of security concerns. In Sayed Karem, northeast of here, a district center was attacked by insurgents, and is being renovated.

"It's frustrating, because you build a project and you know it has a significant threat of being attacked or destroyed right after we build it," Riggs said. "We are planning a lot of projects in [Zormat], but my fear is we're going to build them and they're just going to get attacked right away and we're going to have to go back in and renovate them. Hopefully it doesn't happen, but we'll see."

Despite their difficulty, reconstruction projects are key to the rebuilding efforts here and are strategically aimed at reinforcing the local government and furthering coalition operations in the area to remove the insurgency.

"The goal is, the more work we do down there, the more it will push the enemy out, and we'll have better results," Riggs said.

The team uses local government representatives, along with village leadership, to help to identify potential projects. Also, the engineering section now is working to involve the government more heavily in deciding who gets the contracts.

Some contractors, though, are wary of corruption in the government and worried that its members will favor some companies. But if Riggs' staff selects a contractor not approved by local officials and the contract turns sour, the PRT takes the hit for hiring the contractor. So now, Riggs narrows down the proposals to a handful and presents them to provincial officials to make the selection. The process is still new, but it will be used in some $50 million worth of upcoming projects.

Last week, Riggs met at the provincial governor's complex with about 50 contractors, detailing proposal requirements. Provincial officials, including the deputy governor, director of economy and the district commissioner, led the meeting. Riggs said little during the meeting, and she answered only a few questions at the end.

"Our goal ... is to get them more involved in the entire process and have them help select," Riggs said.

Today, PRT leaders met with about 25 local leaders making up the provincial development council to determine the priority of area projects. Often, a balance is struck between what is developed to advance the counterinsurgency fight and what will help the local government increase its capabilities. PRT officials said they do not want to tell the local government what it needs, and instead try to work as a partner.

But, for all they're worth in the obvious sense, the benefits of roads and schools and clinics and other projects go beyond developing infrastructure and improving education and health care. Contractors are required to hire as much as 80 percent of their labor from within the communities in which the project is being worked. Most is unskilled labor in the more impoverished rural areas, where a good salary is about $5 a day. Skilled laborers, such as masons and stoneworkers, can make up to $17 a day.

These projects infuse cash into the local communities, making it less tempting for people to accept payments from enemy fighters.

"These people are poor, so money from anywhere they're going to take," said Air Force Capt. Shawn Kreuzberger, an engineer with the PRT. "[If] you start getting money in from other than the insurgency, you start building them up where they have their own businesses, their own commerce, and they start taking ownership of the country. They're more likely to stand there and say 'No, we're sick of you people. You're not coming through here.'

"And that's what we want: to stop this insurgency," he said.

Also, hiring local people makes them more vested in the project and less likely to tolerate extremists destroying their efforts, the captain noted.

"It's not just being handed to them," he said. "People in the local communities are helping build it, so now they have ownership of it. Now that they've put their own blood, sweat and tears into it, they are more willing to defend it. They don't want it destroyed."

Jawid Khuram, a local engineer hired to help the team with its projects, said that paying the local people means fewer are willing to fight with the insurgents.

"If a person ... doesn't have any job, he needs money," he said. "The Taliban will pay for him to [take] a gun and fight against the foreign forces."

There were no construction companies in the area under Taliban regime, Khuram said, so the area lacks skilled laborers. In the Zormat district, for example, probably only two skilled laborers are available for hire for the masonry work, he said. But, he added, as the younger generation sees the money that can be made by the skilled laborers, many will become apprentices in hopes of earning the higher wages.

It is this hope for a brighter future that is the key to long-term stability and growth in the region, he said. Khuram went to an engineering school for five years in Kabul to earn his degree, and sees himself, and those willing to work, as the key to the future in Afghanistan.

"Our country in three decades [was] damaged, everything destroyed. Who will build this country? Who will support this country? This country needs us, and we need to build our country," Khuram said. "This is an important job."

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