By Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 6, 2009 - For more than eight years, the Afghan government has been building the country from the ground up, using millions of dollars in aid from foreign governments and private groups. In northern Afghanistan's Panjshir province, however, progress is not measured merely in dollar signs and projects completed, the members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team are using these capabilities to move residents toward self-sufficiency.
Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Stratton, the PRT commander, divides his organization's mission into three areas, each reliant on the other, to accomplish this: developing roads to allow access to isolated villages, ensuring the work within the Panjshir Valley is a "home-grown effort," and creating conditions that make investment in the area sustainable.
"The people here want and need development," Stratton said. "We really work with the local provincial government to help build these opportunities that will lead to private re-investment. One way we're doing this is by paving the road to Badakshan and planning for the 'rib roads,' which will connect the people to the rich natural resource supply" in the province.
The team also is working to increase production and efficiency in what the Panjshir people know and do best -- agriculture.
Most of the province is dependent on agriculture, so the PRT works heavily in that area with the Panjshir government as well as representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We work within the local government to teach self-sufficiency, as we are not going to be here forever," Army Lt. Col. Steve Lancaster, chief of the Panjshir PRT's civil affairs section, said.
A part of that effort is the team's work with a local nonprofit group, the Massoud Foundation, to donate $25,000 in small loans to the people of the Panjshir Valley. If granted, a family receives a $500 loan with zero interest.
"This will allow a person to buy a cow, start a business, whatever they want to do to take care of their families," Lancaster said.
The program is managed with the Panjshir Valley's Massoud Group, which has an office in every Afghan province.
"This is all about putting money in the hands of the people," said Sadiqi, director of the Panjshir Valley Massoud Foundation. "It's really a small investment that people can use to start their own businesses -- there is no set payment plan, but after six months, they should be able to bring back the $500. We don't charge them interest, and we'll loan the money back out to the next applicant."
Other projects include the development of chicken-raising programs, which allow women to receive 12 chickens to produce eggs that they can sell to their neighbors. Lancaster also is working with local officials and his U.S. Agriculture Department counterpart to develop crop projects that use dynamic growing techniques such as row cropping and drip irrigation. These techniques improve the survivability and validity of various fruit trees and wheat fields, which can then be transplanted around the province to provide more crops, and thus, more income.
"The governor's main focus for this year was agriculture," Lancaster said. "We are hoping that we will be able to teach them to grow enough crops to not only sell to neighboring countries for money, but also be able to keep some of what they grow for their own uses."
For Army Sgt. Michael Kelly, who serves on Lancaster's civil affairs team and is deployed from Riverside, Calif., the opportunity to take part in these unique projects has been a valuable experience.
"It is very fulfilling to me to help people in their time of need and during emergencies," said Kelly, who also serves as a humanitarian aid requisition, distribution and storage NCO. "Agriculture is a priority of what we do here, and it's been an extremely unique experience working here when you look at some of the other things I have done in the Army."
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson serves with U.S. Air Forces Central public affairs.)