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Winning the peace in Afghanistan

Rebuilding efforts in this nation indicate what is ahead for U.S. troops in Iraq: battles, persuasion and frustration.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003


CHAYKAL, Afghanistan -- Shir Agha leaned forward and took a sip of his tea. Then he looked to the interpreter and told his guests what he needed.

"None of our people are employed inside the base. They don't have any jobs on the base," said Agha, a leader of the area around this village 4 miles north of Bagram Air Base. "They want to have jobs."

As the United States moves out of war and into the rebuilding of Iraq, conversations like the one between Agha and U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Stephen Casaceli in Afghanistan earlier this month may become commonplace in Iraq, too.

For if the rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan prove to be the template for Iraq, as some have suggested, U.S. officials know what is coming.

People must be fed and housed. A new government must be installed. And the population must be persuaded that U.S. intervention is a good thing.

There will be daily battles as U.S. forces try to eliminate organized guerrillas and others bent on destabilizing the new government -- by assassination of new leaders, if necessary.

The new government will work to establish a national army, but in the interim will rely on U.S. and other coalition troops to provide security.

Meanwhile, ancient ethnic and religious conflicts in regions far beyond the capital will flare, consuming time, attention and money intended for new schools, homes and mosques.

Finally, there will be frustration. Because returning refugees will get blankets and shoes from well-meaning Americans when what they really need are homes, jobs and roads.

"America is good. This is good," said Zia Uddin as he watched an Army truckload of shoes, blankets, clothes, groceries and toys unloaded in his village of Qalai Nasro, near Bagram.

Then he was asked through an interpreter what else his village needed.

"A lot of refugees are coming back here now from Pakistan and other places," he replied. "And they need houses."

To be sure, a postwar Iraq will have many advantages over post-Taliban Afghanistan.

For starters, there is oil in Iraq to help pay the freight. There is a power grid vastly superior to Afghanistan's. And there are phones, roads and a port.

Perhaps most important, Iraq already has a national identity, something Afghanistan is still trying to achieve in uniting disparate ethnic groups.

Lining up the Humvees before the humanitarian aid mission to Chaykal, Sgt. Casaceli made it clear that he didn't expect trouble, but wanted to be ready for it.

"If you see a sniper, kill the sniper," he told the military police in the convoy. "Drivers drive. Shooters shoot."

And one other thing.

"I've never been to a village where the children didn't steal things," Casaceli said. "If he comes at you once and tries to grab something, tell him no. If he comes back, I expect you to bend his little fingers until he cries so he knows not to do it again.

"But, remember: This is a humanitarian aid mission. We're good guys with guns."

Goodwill ambassador

Casaceli, 39, seems a bit miscast as an American goodwill ambassador.

He is built hard and square, with a jaw like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and the booming voice of a drill sergeant. At home in Rochester, N.Y., he supervises corrections officers at a prison. He is in the Army Reserve and was called up last October. For this.

Casaceli is the ranking noncommissioned officer of the civil affairs unit at Bagram Air Base, the command center for the 11,500 U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. Boiled down, his job is to try to make the country safer by providing aid to residents.

Though it is still technically a war zone, the Army, through civil affairs, is building schools, repairing homes and installing clean water wells throughout Afghanistan.

A visit to Chaykal shows just how far there is to go.

As Casaceli steps out of the truck on a dirt road, he explains to the village commanders and others that the Army has come to deliver gifts. He speaks softly to the Afghans and introduces some of the soldiers.

It doesn't take long to notice that many of the villagers are armed. Even a boy who says he is 8 years old is carrying a long percussion rifle. It might have been made in the 1800s, but he is sure it still fires.

The visit goes smoothly. The children are even orderly as toys are handed out. That's a rarity, Casaceli says.

Noor Uddin, a former Northern Alliance rebel fighter who now holds the unofficial title of commander of Chaykal, invites the soldiers into his home. The walls are made of hard mud, mixed with straw. The roof is made of timber, again covered with mud and straw.

It is one of the few homes in the village with a roof. Others have walls, maybe a window, but are missing roofs. There is no electricity or running water, though there is a creek.

There is no school. No clinic. No doctor. And few jobs beyond duck hunting, fishing and raising wheat or grapes on small plots.

Uddin asks if the Army has contracts available for the men in his town.

"When jobs open up, we do our best to spread those around the area," Casaceli explains. "I will see what I can do."

He has made no promises -- he never does. But Uddin, Agha and others in the village seem satisfied. They invite Casaceli to visit again.

Two days later, Casaceli and a different group of troops are in Qalai Nasro, another village, three miles on the other side of Bagram.

This was a former stronghold of the Taliban. To run them out, U.S. jets dropped bombs and fired rockets throughout the village. At least in the short term, the cure may have been as bad as the disease.

The center of the mosque was destroyed. Most of the mud homes were flattened. Few have roofs.

Still, village commander Zia Uddin, whose family has run Qalai Nasro for 200 years, is pleased to have U.S. troops back in his village.

"Right now, we are living a very good life since we got rid of the Taliban," Uddin says through an interpreter. "Americans are the people who love a lot of people in the world."

This makes Casaceli smile.

Later, he is asked if delivering blankets and other items to roughly a thousand people in a nation of nearly 28-million has really made much of a difference.

"We're gettin' 'em," Casaceli said. "One at a time if we have to."

Bomb blasts and booby traps

Since Sept. 11, 2001, when a retaliatory attack on Afghanistan became inevitable, the United States has spent about $900-million for aid and reconstruction here. Other nations have also pledged money, including Pakistan, which is planning to spend $100-million to help Afghanistan build a road network where none exists.

But an early draft of the Bush administration's proposed budget caused concern here because nothing was included for Afghanistan. Administration officials say that another $300-million or so is on the way; the details are simply being sorted out.

The goal of the rebuilding money is "to deny aid and comfort to the enemy through humanitarian assistance," as Casaceli recites.

In the long term, it is hoped that roads will bring Afghans closer together and eliminate the fighting between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara and other ethnic groups. Electricity would bring more factories. Schools would improve the literacy rate and provide a better work force.

But before any of that can happen, the fighting must stop. And as troops in Iraq are likely to see soon, mopping up after a war can be as hard as the war itself.

Beating the Taliban and al-Qaida forces was relatively easy. Getting them to go away for good has been a problem.

Nearly every night there is a rocket attack on a U.S. base. One of the nation's three vice presidents was assassinated in July, and President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt two months later. Bomb blasts and booby trapped mines are regular occurrences.

So which is harder, the toe-to-toe war or the ongoing battle against an unseen enemy?

"It's almost better if you can see the enemy. If you can see them, you can kill them," said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Bradshaw, 35, of Titusville, who is based at Bagram. "Here, you always have to watch your surroundings."

To battle the guerrillas, U.S. forces are working with Afghan militia fighters and the new Afghan national army. That army recently reached a milestone when the first trainees began training classes for the latest recruits.

The United States is slowly stepping back but, as in Iraq, no one is willing to estimate when Afghanistan will be considered safe.

"I think that's almost an impossible task to put a time frame on because it is almost in the mind-set of the enemy," said Col. Roger King, chief spokesman for the coalition task force troops in Afghanistan. "And it depends on how much of the fight the Afghans are willing to take on themselves."

For a time, that may be dependent on geography. In Kabul and parts north, the United States has forged alliances with former rebels by working together to beat the Taliban, much as the United States is working with Kurds in northern Iraq now. As a result, peace has been easier to achieve in that part of the country.

Still, 18 months after entering Afghanistan, few in this part of the country seem eager to see troops leave.

"I am ready for them to go," said Faheem Achmadi, a vendor in a weekly bazaar held outside the base in Bagram. "But only if they are leaving peace behind."

-- Times staff writer Chuck Murphy is with U.S. troops operating out of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

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