By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 26, 2009 - In a recent meeting in downtown Gardez City with local government officials, Army Lt. Col. Donald Cullison struck an unintentional pose that symbolizes coalition efforts in eastern Afghanistan. In one hand he held a steaming cup of chai tea, a local gesture of hospitality and friendship. His other hand draped across the M-4 rifle resting in his lap.
What appears a dichotomy is the balance coalition forces must strike as they promise both security and development in a country ravaged by war and racked with poverty -- its people torn between supporting a deeply ingrained insurgency offering survival, or a shaky, upstart government that promises hope for the future.
And somewhere in that balance is where coalition forces hope to find victory on this battlefield that was the birthplace of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.
"In this fight, dollars are bullets. Development is just as important as security," Cullison said. "You can't have security without development and you can't have development without security.
"It goes to different degrees. But you can't have them exclusive."
Cullison heads the civil affairs efforts for the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team here. He also serves as the executive officer for the 80-person team.
This is a region that has long been controlled by varying local tribes with little interest, or trust, in a regional government. The rugged mountain passes serve as a passageway and staging area for enemy fighters traveling from the Pakistan border into Afghanistan.
A career civil affairs officer with multiple deployments under his belt, Cullison said that his team's job is to separate the people of Afghanistan from the insurgency that works to undermine coalition efforts and the development of a central government.
"It has nothing to do with going out there and being nice and giving people things, or being the Peace Corps of the Army," Cullison said. "Why do we do everything that we do? Because I want the people ... to jump on the side of [the Afghanistan government] and the coalition.
"Our ultimate goal is to separate the populace from the insurgency. The insurgency isn't all the people. There are quite a few out there that just want to go about their lives and live peacefully."
The nine-person civil affairs section serves as the face of the PRT for the provincial government and local people. Cullison's team divides the 14 districts that cover an area about the size of Rhode Island and then reach out to assess the areas and determine what projects will both boost the economy and help legitimize the Afghan government. In some districts, team members work at the provincial level, meeting with officials in government buildings in secure compounds. In other areas, they drink tea in mud huts with local tribal and religious leaders.
The team looks to jumpstart a mix of projects -- some that will quickly infuse much-needed cash or provide basic health care and promote government and coalition operations, and others that will proffer longer-term effects such as schools or roads that will impact generations to come.
Its goal is to build relationships of trust and confidence, both in the efforts of the coalition forces and the local government. Many locals are skeptical, Cullison said, and know that if the government fails, or if coalition forces leave, it is they who will have to deal with the backlash of the insurgents.
"Right now the Afghan people aren't sure. Are we going to stay? Is their government going to work?" Cullison said. "That's why the insurgency is allowed to operate within Afghanistan, because the Afghan people are still not sure which way this government is going to go and which way the coalition forces are going to go."
To combat this, his team plans long-term projects and pushes provincial leadership out into the tribes. Local and provincial officials work together to decide what each village needs. This not only connects the provincial leadership with the locals, but also provides an opportunity for the team to mentor good governance practices, Cullison said.
One of the biggest challenges for the team is working to develop the trust and confidence of residents while dealing with a local government and its security forces that have a history of deep-seeded corruption.
Just in the past few weeks, the provincial director of public works was arrested on charges of contract fraud. The provincial government has no budget to speak of, no tax base to draw from. There has been an attempt to establish some basic public utilities in parts of the province, but service is spotty and it is not clear if public fees make it into government coffers. Officials and security forces are poorly paid, and often resort to bribery or extortion.
When the team delivers humanitarian assistance to a village, its members stay to ensure the blankets, beans, rice and tea are handed out to needy families, for fear the security forces or tribal leaders will take it for themselves to use or sell.
And, the Afghan culture thrives on favoritism. For years, locals have survived by forming allegiances, tribe-to-tribe, family-to-family and man-to-man. As U.S. dollars are pumped into the region in the form of jobs and local contracts, these allegiances can sometimes strangle the teams' efforts at making the Afghan government appear unbiased.
"Corruption is in every element of everything that is done here," Cullison said. "It's the cost of doing business here in Afghanistan."
With hundreds of millions of dollars in development being poured into the province, though, the PRT cannot afford to shy from addressing the corruption. It coaches government officials on setting and adhering to ethical standards. It enforces square deals when dishing out local contracts. And, more importantly, Cullison said, it models those practices in its dealings.
"We don't cut corners. We don't make promises that are going to benefit a [particular] Afghan official. We don't award projects based on a kick-back or somebody benefiting," Cullison said. "We do things because it's the right thing to do.
"I think that they're beginning to see that when everybody trusts that the system is fair and is transparent, that everybody benefits."
In the end, Cullison said, it is the people's trust in a government that they build that will defeat the insurgency here. And it will be years to come.
As more money is pumped into the economy, the people can earn a living wage. As Afghan forces are trained and culled of corruption, tribes can live without fear of enemy fighters making their way through their villages.
And as its government stretches and grows, more schools will be built, more roads will be paved and an infrastructure eventually will be in place that provides access province-wide to commerce, education and health care.
And that, Cullison said, will be the demise of the insurgency.
"You defeat an insurgency by influencing, convincing people that it's more advantageous for them to support their government," Cullison said. "The way the PRT is fighting this war is the way the insurgency is going to be defeated."