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US Military Focuses on Relief, Development in Fight Against Afghan Taleban

29 May 2006

Despite a recent surge in Taleban attacks military planners in Afghanistan say the key to success is the same now as it was five years ago, winning the hearts and minds of local Afghans. VOA's Benjamin Sand recently traveled with U.S. forces in the southeast province of Paktika where American soldiers are building schools and new roads through the Taleban's traditional stronghold.

Local workers pound cobblestones into place, working overtime to complete a road they have been building since last February. The road, about 15 kilometers long, will connect this small village to the market in a nearby town called Orgun-E.

The U.S. military is funding the entire project.

Inside the American camp in Orgun-E officials say basic development projects like this one are not just the best way, but probably the only way to beat the insurgency.

Lt. Benjamin Bryant says the militants have set up bases across the border in Pakistan. They cross the border at night to stage their attacks and then slip back before sunrise beyond the reach of U.S. forces.

He says the American's goal has shifted from confronting the enemy to winning over the local communities.

"It's not important to change the opinion of the militants. Militants are militants but people who occupy the area, if they don't like the militants they'll kick the militants out themselves," he said.

And so the Army here is spending more time building schools than bombing insurgents.

In Paktika, the total budget for development projects is around 40-million dollars. American soldiers are working on everything from new roads to solar powered streetlights.

Bryant's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Toner, says the new approach has been an unqualified success.

"They can see it. It's visible and its tangible. It makes them feel like they are getting on with progress, or getting on with life," he explained.

In Orgun-E local stores claim business is up more than 60 percent.

And according to Toner, that means the insurgency has just lost a key outpost in Paktika.

"I don't have any IED strikes on these roads. I don't have any contact with the enemy on these roads," he said. " I ask a business man how's security and he said security is good, so I said why is security good and he points to the road, because the tribes have a vested interest (in it)"

He says as long as local communities associate U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul with progress they will have no reason to support the Taleban.

But this is the best-case scenario. In other parts of the province success has been more elusive.

A U.S. patrol in Bermel heads off base after hearing reports that insurgents may be headed their way from across the nearby border with Pakistan.

The Taleban, not the U.S. military, has the upper hand in these remote towns. Local residents say the insurgents sweep through after dark and threaten anybody who works with the Americans.

Six months ago the Taleban beheaded the local police chief. Today the mayor stays in a fortified compound adjoining the American military base.

Out on patrol, First Lieutenant Sean Parnell says that, unfortunately, development projects will have to wait until the situation stabilizes here.

"Once security is established the projects will come," he explained. "We just want to make a presence here and show the people we care about them."

The delay is causing concern, not just here but across the country.

The U.S.-led coalition ousted the hard-line Taleban regime in 2001 after it refused to hand over terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Almost five years later pro-Taleban militants can still disrupt international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Back in Paktika, Colonel Toner says he is desperately trying to attract more Western aid agencies to help rebuild the province's battered infrastructure. So far, however, even the United Nations has refused to work in many parts of Paktika, citing longstanding security concerns.

But Colonel Toner says without more international support, security here will only get worse, not better. As a result, he says coalition troops will still patrol the countryside and American soldiers will keep building roads.

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