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US Troops in Afghanistan Help in Reconstruction - 2002-09-25

Joseph Collins is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for what are termed Stability Operations. He says that topping the list of U-S military-backed aid projects is the construction of new schools or the refurbishment of aging or damaged ones.

Mr. COLLINS said:

"chools for about 70-thousand Afghan students. Sixty schools, about 15-clinics, 89-wells. In addition to that, in larger projects, the soldiers have supervised the desilting of many of the canals around Herat and they have also supervised the refurbishment of the National Teachers' College in Kabul as well as the National Veterinary Center which was the largest project they did. It was almost a million-dollars all by itself."

Mr. Collins tells V-O-A in a Pentagon interview that he believes these projects, about eight-million dollars worth with a similar amount planned for next year, will go a long way to restoring normalcy and stability to Afghanistan.

But he concedes there is a problem. Many Afghans, even at the highest level, appear to have no idea the U-S military is engaged in the humanitarian assistance effort for their country.

Mr. Collins said: "When I went to see [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai, in my last trip to Afghanistan, I presented him a list of the accomplishments done by the soldiers. And his eyes grew wide and he said to his Ministers and he said to the U-S Ambassador. He said, 'We have to get the word out on this' and it became clear in our conversation that what he was talking about was getting word out inside Afghanistan about all these projects.

The U-S soldiers, members of Army Civil Affairs units, are project designers and supervisors. The actual work is carried out by about 18-thousand paid Afghan workers, according to the Pentagon.

Mr. Collins says the emphasis on education-related projects is largely the result of consultations with Afghans. He said: The part of this that surprised people when they went to the countryside and they asked the people what do you want, the answer came back time after time, 'We want schools. We want you to fix the school we used to have. We want you to repair the school that was blown up or we never had a school here in this village and so help us out. We want our children to be able to go to school.'

The projects are scattered around Afghanistan, usually in locations close to U-S bases.

But the emphasis, says Mr. Collins, is on having military civil affairs specialists work in places where no other aid organizations are active. He says defense officials have no desire to compete with civilian relief workers.

Some civilian aid groups have been critical of at least one aspect the military's humanitarian effort. Earlier this year, in a letter to White House and Pentagon officials, several groups complained some military personnel were engaged in aid work while wearing civilian clothing, but carrying weapons. They charged this blurred the lines between who is a soldier and who is an unarmed civilian relief worker, and could lead to possibly dangerous confusion.

Mr. Collins says the problem has been resolved because the soldiers engaged in aid work now wear either full or partial uniforms. He makes clear the military stands ready to give up aid work entirely when civilian groups are ready to replace them. He said

What I have done is challenge them to make us irrelevant. When they get to all the places we are and bring greater skill and resolve to bear, we are obviously going to be outmanned and outgunned so we will stop doing humanitarian assistance projects and move on to something else.

Mr. Collins says there is a distinct military benefit to the Pentagon's engagement in aid work in Afghanistan. He says it helps win the goodwill of the people, thus facilitating the military mission.

But of course, that is only if the people know about the humanitarian projects, something Mr. Collins concedes has not been the case. (SIGNED)