Gardez is a city of 70,000 inhabitants along a river in a mountain valley at an elevation of about 7,600 feet (nearly a half-mile higher than Denver, Colo.). Located about 60 miles south of Kabul and 50 miles west of the Pakistan border, Gardez is the capital of the Paktia Province. The climate is comparable to that of Wyoming, and like the rest of Afghanistan, Gardez has suffered from a decade-long drought.
Gardez is the center of Paktia province, an area the size of South Carolina. The population is overwhelmingly Pashtun, and Gardez was a stronghold of the Taliban. In addition, the population is divided into tribes, many of which are involved in feuds with each other that can go back generations. And rival warlords still maintain private armies in the area.
There has been a long-standing dispute between two tribes in northeastern Paktia, the Totakhel and the Mangal tribes. Essentially, the Mangal control about 4 districts in which they have the majority population, and they're the predominant tribe in 4 more outlying districts. They've been at odds with the Totakhel for a long time for setting up illegal checkpoints, and accusing each other of house-burning, of criminal activity in the area, so it's been a tit for tat kind of dispute that has been going on for quite a while.
"Kill them all: men, women, children, even the chickens." Those were the orders of warlord Bacha Khan [aka Pacha Khan Zadran or Aghi Badshah Khan Zadran] when a rival drove him out of the city of Gardez in January 2002. In April 2002 he returned, and rained 200 rockets on the sorry city. About 30 civilians were killed and 70 others wounded, most of them women and children. His tanks occupied the streets of Gardez, his bandits terrorized the inhabitants of nearby Khost, and the central government could do nothing but watch. He had been taking American money since December 2001, when his troops stood by and let al-Qaeda terrorist escape from Tora Bora; many US military sources believed that Osama bin Laden himself escaped, due to the double-dealing of Bacha Khan and his comrades.
A rival clan in the city returned fire, sending artillery back into Zadran's valley over the heads of US special forces, literally catching the Americans in the middle. Zadran came to be described as the Abdul Rashid Dostum of Afghanistan's southeast: an unsavory but necessary ally.
The area is poor. It was hard hit by the drought of the recent years and even the heavy rains of the winter have not replenished the water table. The terrain looks like a cross between the Badlands of South Dakota and the Painted Desert of Arizona. It is extremely hot and dry. There are few trees on the valley floor and the rugged mountains make travel difficult.
In March 2002, the largest engagement of the war was fought, in the mountainous Shah-i-Kot area south of Gardez, against a large force of al Qaeda jihadists. The three-week battle was substantially successful, and almost all remaining al Qaeda forces took refuge in Pakistan's equally mountainous and lightly governed frontier provinces. By 18 March 2002 Operation Anaconda was officially over, but skirmishes near Gardez and west of Kandahar proved the Defense Department's premise that actions in Afghanistan are not complete. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa, Joint Staff spokesman, put it simply during a press conference March 18: "Operation Anaconda is over, but Operation Enduring Freedom continues."
Teams remained in the Operation Anaconda area looking for any remaining Taliban and al Qaeda. US, Afghan and coalition forces have searched more than 30 caves in the region so far and have found weapons, ammunition and documents. A patrol observed three vehicles about 45 miles southwest of Gardez. After watching them for a time, commanders called in helicopters to stop the convoy. When their warning shots were met with return fire, the aircraft destroyed the vehicles. In the firefight, 16 people in the convoy were killed, one wounded and one detained. There were no US casualties.
Making a difference in Afghanistan requires teamwork, diligence, commitment and a strong desire to be part of the community. The soldiers of the Gardez Provincial Reconstruction Team understand those values and are implementing them during their rebuilding and stabilizing efforts. Their mission is to support the rising of the local government and to help rebuild the surrounding communities -- one school, one road, one bridge and one relationship at a time.
The civil affairs projects run from helping build schools, to repairing bridges, to helping in clinics, to digging wells. The reconstruction team would like to improve roads in the area to make travel easier. This would be costly, but it would also require local labor and would not only improve travel, but would also be a way to get money into the pockets of the region's poor people.
The teams have civilian members from the US State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Justice Department, and added representatives from the US Department of Agriculture. The military and civilian personnel must work together to bring the full weight of resources to bear against the problems of the region.
It looks like the Alamo, complete with the Lone Star flag flying over it. The red mud walls of the coalition's Provincial Reconstruction Team compound bring to mind the Texas shrine. But it isn't Jim Bowie or Davey Crockett manning the walls in a last-ditch defense of the San Antonio mission; rather, it's the men and women of the coalition against terrorism standing up for peace and security.
When the Provincial Reconstruction Team arrived in early 2003 there was close to nothing. It was dark, cold, muddy, there was no running water or electricity, and the team of seven was alone, on a compound practically in the middle of nowhere.
Even though they were thrown into austere conditions with not much to work with, the PRT in Gardez has made many accomplishments in the first few months to improve soldiers' morale and their quality of life. Providing force protection was one of the first priorities because the base was out in the open and was basically defenseless if attacked. They began to make plans to erect prefabricated buildings around the entire base.
For the PRT's first week in Gardez, they could do little more than plan since guard duty was one of their main priorities. For about a week after arrival, they were the only people occupying the compound. With the arrival of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, deployed from Fort Bragg, NC, the PRT had more time to focus on their mission.
Along with the erection of the buildings they also built frames for tents and dug wells for running water. To start with, the well was no more than a pump that drew water from the ground, but it was a foundation for other luxuries to come. Some of these luxuries, such as flush toilets, showers, a new dining facility, and washing machines and dryers, were the PRT's next improvements. The water isn't always hot, and sometimes we have low pressure, but they make do.
The dining facility is one of the additions that made life a little easier for the soldiers. The old DFAC was just a tent and there was no place for the troops to sit down and enjoy their meals. The new DFAC is hard structured and much larger with tables, benches, heat and electricity so troops can sit down and relax. Aside from a place to eat, the dining facility serves other purposes. The DFAC has a television and DVD player so troops can come at the end of the day and enjoy a movie. It really contributes to morale.
Troops in Gardez were also happy with the new DFAC, because it gives them a place to wind down at the end of the day. With the DFAC open soldiers have a place to watch movies and play some cards in the evening rather than just staying in our quarters.
With the basics established, the PRT then focused on improving mobility. Mud was a big problem because it slows down mobility and hurts morale. They began to work on a drainage system for the rainfall, and use granite and rocks to build walkways and better parking lots. The troops have contributed tremendously to the improvements made here and they were very patient in waiting for things to get better.
To continue assisting the citizens of Gardez in rebuilding their community, US forces constantly meet with local officials and dignitaries to ensure progress is being maintained. US civil affairs soldiers and a representative from the Department of State met with the Gardez president of education to discuss problems and progress in one of the city's most important areas - education.
One of the improvements was the increase of schools and students in Gardez by more than 100 percent due to US intervention. During the rule of the Taliban, there were 24 schools and about 2,000 male students since girls were not allowed to attend school. All of the materials taught were dictated by the Taliban. Now the US and coalition forces have helped us to increase those numbers to 122 schools and almost 100,000 students, both male and female in attendance.
In addition to schools, coalition forces also helped Gardez students in other areas to make their learning experience easier. The coalition forces supplied school supplies for students such as books, pens and desks. They also provided transportation by way of bus for female school children who were afraid to travel on foot.
Another more recent problem the Gardez education department has had to face is an investigation by the governor for fraud. The construction of many of the new school projects was temporarily halted due to the speculation that locals were pocketing funds allotted for contractors built the school.
In late 2004 there were troubling new allegations about the abuse of Afghan detainees in Gardez, including the death of one detainee that was never reported up the chain of command. There appeared to be a complete disregard for established Army procedure among certain units in Afghanistan. The special forces base at Gardez was allegedly allowed to operate with no recordkeeping requirements or standing operating procedures -- an allegation that was corroborated by a US Army investigator in Afghanistan.
US Army Special Forces arrested eight Afghan soldiers in March 2003 at the request of the provincial governor. The prosecutors' report and an internal memorandum prepared by a United Nations delegation both allege American mistreatment of the detainees including repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down, and having toenails torn off. One detainee, Jamal Naseer, reportedly died as a result of the torture. The US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) recently opened a criminal probe into Naseer's death.
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