By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 10, 2009 - (Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional commentaries by American Forces Press Service reporter Fred W. Baker III, who is on an extended assignment covering troops on the ground in Afghanistan.) My journey here started when I left Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28 for a weeklong intercontinental trek to Afghanistan. I was slated to media embed for 45 days with a provincial reconstruction team and an infantry unit in eastern Afghanistan in early February.
After transiting through Amsterdam, Kuwait and Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, I had a brief layover at Forward Operating Base Salerno, about 90 miles southeast of Kabul. After a day at the remote base, referred to as the "Florida of Afghanistan" for its temperate weather, I caught a flight Feb. 6 to my final, and much colder, destination here.
After two tries at catching a CH-47 Chinook flight out of the base, I managed to catch a Blackhawk leaving on a night mission. It was a bitter-cold flight through the snow-covered mountain passes, and I sat across from the pilot-side gunner.
The gunners' windows on both sides were open and they constantly scanned the landscape using night-vision goggles, their gloved hands keeping a grip on mounted machine guns. For the first time since I have been in country I realized that movement in these outlying areas comes with a very real threat.
The moon was bright, though, and the view beautiful as we climbed up and over the mountains that looked more suited for ski lodges and resorts than insurgent hideouts.
FOB Gardez feels like Afghanistan, as opposed to other larger FOBs that feel more like U.S. bases. There are no coffee shops here. No McDonalds or Pizza Hut. No large gyms or places to buy cars for delivery back to the States.
The temperature is much colder here than in Salerno. The FOB sits nearly 7,700 feet above sea level, and snow and ice cover much of the area. The base sits just outside of Gardez City, in Paktia province, about 45 miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The rural province is about the size of Rhode Island and home to nearly a half-million locals.
The provincial reconstruction team is housed in a traditional Afghanistan "qalat," which is a mud and straw fortress. It has thick, high walls with guard towers on each corner. Rooms are built into the walls and the center serves as a courtyard. There are two qalats on the FOB, and the other is occupied by members of the 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team/506th Regimental Combat Team from Fort Campbell, Ky., who conduct operations in the province.
The 80-person PRT is Air Force led, but also has members from both the Army and Army Reserve. A 40-soldier Army National Guard infantry unit -- Company B, 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry out of Elgin, Ill. -- provides security for the team during its missions.
The team took over here in November and will work in the area into this summer. While many meetings with local officials, contractors and others are held at the FOB, much of the team's work is done "outside the wire." This can be especially dangerous as some of the areas have a very small coalition force presence and this region has traditionally been an insurgent stronghold.
Part of the team's efforts is to try to legitimize the local and central Afghanistan government, and efforts this weekend were to that effect. On Feb. 7, the head of the PRT engineer section, Air Force Maj. Kimberly Riggs, traveled to Gardez City for a contractors' conference.
Millions of dollars in Commander's Emergency Response Program funds are being funneled into the area to build roads, schools, health clinics and the like. Officials with the PRT want the local government to be more involved in awarding the local contracts.
The conference took place at the provincial governor's complex, and it was led by local officials with about 50 potential contractors showing up for the event.
The team's commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Moy, traveled by helicopter with the provincial governor, Juma Khan Hamdard, and the provincial police chief to a rural outpost called "Wilderness," where U.S. forces team with Afghanistan National Army troops.
The camp is typically rocked during the summer months by insurgent forces firing mortars and rockets. Nine people were killed there in the past year, a senior noncommissioned officer there said. Because of security concerns in the area, PRT projects in the area have been put on hold.
This was the governor's first trip to the area, and tribal leaders from three districts turned out for the event. In a small, plywood building, the group of about 40 met. They sat on a large carpet, legs crossed, and drank tea and talked about their concerns. Officials there said security is good now in the area and that the projects, which include two schools, should restart. No promises were made, though.
Officials hope that holding onto the projects will encourage locals to help secure the area. The event showed the local leaders that the governor is "tuned in" to their needs, Moy said.
With very poor roads and a heavy reliance on aviation support, the weather controls nearly everything here. A winter storm front is moving in. The team is unsure about plans this week to move about the province.
For me, the bad weather is good. Trying to catch up with the fast-moving commander and his civil affairs chief, who are in high demand by everyone from regional officials to shopkeepers, is difficult. The bad weather will contain them to the base and I plan to corner them in the qalat.
Over a hefty dinner of lasagna tonight (Italian night at the Army-run dining facility), I nailed them down. I have a date for tomorrow: 8:30 a.m. for coffee. I will spend the day interviewing and shadowing them. I just hope the weather stays on my side.