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Rebuilding Afghanistan, one project at a time

Christie Blatchford, Globe & Mail, 16 Dec 06

Article Link

 

The other day, a 34-year-old Canadian reservist named Corporal Shawn Denty got to deliver the medical supplies his friends and colleagues in Oakville, Ont., had collected after reading an e-mail about his distressing visit to Mirwais Hospital, the lone civilian hospital in Kandahar city.

 

“I was shocked,” Cpl. Denty wrote home. “The dirt, the dust... it was a shambles. There I was, standing in the middle of a Third World country.”

 

Like many of those who came before him, and surely many of those who will follow, all he wanted was to do something for the poor and suffering of this battle-scarred nation.

 

Back in Canada, in Manitouwadge, Ont., his fiancée, family and co-workers at Xerox Business Supplies beat the bushes, and came up with about 20 boxes of supplies that are like gold in Kandahar: an EKG heart monitor, green surgical gowns and towels, bed sheets, diapers, syringes, and intravenous cannulas.

 

Everyone involved, but particularly Cpl. Denty, who had seen the gaping need at the hospital while escorting VIPs on a tour, dreamed of helping Afghans and especially children.Instead, what happened was that his treasure trove was given over to a tiny Afghan National Army medical clinic just outside the giant NATO base at Kandahar Air Field, journalists were invited to bear witness to his soldierly good works, and in the end much of the valuable booty was taken to a warehouse, where despite the locks on the doors it may yet disappear to the black market.

 

Therein lies the lesson of aid, reconstruction and development in this most battered part of Afghanistan: Good intentions are never enough.

 

Arguably, nowhere has it been better learned than at the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team headquarters on the fringes of Kandahar city, the second-largest in Afghanistan, and birthplace of the Taliban.

 

By the time the PRT crew from the Royal Canadian Regiment arrived last August, weary Afghans here had been promised the moon by the soldiers, aid agencies and various levels of government that collectively make up what's known as “the international community,” and by their own leaders, and yet had very little to show for it.

 

And, as in broad strokes the international effort here has been much criticized — most harshly in a recent Senlis Council report which announced that the Taliban was winning the “hearts and minds” campaign because of the world's failure to make the lives of the Afghan people even marginally better — so the Canadian PRT, as it was operated under the auspices of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, came in for its share.

 

That in turn prompted concerns on the Canadian home front that the supposedly three-pronged nature of Canada's role here had turned into a purely combat operation.

 

But the PRT team in place now has quietly managed in little more than three months to get 75 projects under way, most of them small and Afghan-run and some remarkably innovative.

 

They have two assets their predecessors didn't: a dedicated “force protection” team which allows them to move about the sprawling city safely and easily, and a squad of 12 combat engineers who act as managers on larger projects and who can, as deputy PRT commander Major Steve Murray says, “write up a contract on a field message pad and do it so it's enforceable.”

 

With the engineers at the helm, the team found an Afghan contractor who has been able to repair three of four neglected Afghan National Police substations, start building some of five planned new ones and get to work on improving 14 ANP checkpoints, all aimed at improving security in the city, of course, but also at professionalizing a police force that is widely considered inept at best and corrupt at worst.

 

A platoon of military police and civilian Canadian police, most from the RCMP, meanwhile, continues to train ANP officers.

 

But it is from the contingent of 14 CIMIC soldiers — the acronym stands for Civilian-Military Co-operation — that some of the most ingenious small projects, most costing under $5,000 (Canadian) each, have come.

 

Sergeant Ted Howard burbles with enthusiasm about them, particularly the two being run under the auspices of the Afghan Women's Council.

 

One of them has war widows sewing custom-made winter jackets for the 400 children who live at the frigid, unheated Abdul Ahad Karzai Orphanage that sits off the much-bombed Highway 4 (the building's windows were shattered by the Nov. 27 suicide bombing which killed Regimental Sergeant-Major Bobby Girouard and Corporal Albert Storm). The PRT, with money from the Department of National Defence-Commander's Contingency Fund, will buy the jackets from the widows.

 

The other project has imprisoned Afghan women, who in many cases are jailed — with their children — for offences under Islamic laws that would not be crimes in the West, busily making blankets for Afghan security forces; again, the PRT will buy the blankets.

 

In both instances, penniless women and youngsters benefit.

 

Similarly, inspired by Mohammed Niaz, a PRT interpreter who lost both legs in a May 24 battle and who is back at work at the compound, the “cobbler program” is about to get started.

 

A cobbler paid by the PRT will come to Kandahar from Kabul, teach amputees how to make custom dress shoes on equipment bought by the PRT, and the amputees will set up shop at markets at the PRT and perhaps later at the much-bigger air field at Kandahar, with their captive audiences of foreigners looking for bargains.

 

Well under way, too, is the “canal and culvert cleaning” cash-for-work project.

 

At the behest of the Kandahar mayor, desperate to get his city moving again and to offer his business taxpayers a functional city service, the PRT hired a local contractor, who in turn is hiring as many as 200 local fighting-age men a day, to clear out six years of garbage. In October, the PRT paid for 1,800 “man days,” last month 2,250 — meaning several thousand unemployed, illiterate men, who “sign” for their wages with a fingerprint, had a little cash in hand and were at least in theory less vulnerable to Taliban recruiters.

 

“What we're doing,” Major Murray says, “is buying time” for the big aid players, such as the Canadian International Development Agency, which has major dam, bridge and irrigation projects in the offing, but still can't get them going until the security situation in the region improves.

 

As for Cpl. Denty, he's not giving up. There's a girls' school he wants to help, and even as he heads home this weekend, he'd like to come back to Afghanistan one day.

 

And Sgt. Howard has a little of the dreamer in him, too. By next spring, he says, he hopes to put flowers along volatile Highway 1, improve the park by the soccer stadium, and plant a few trees.

 

“Trees in downtown Kandahar,” he says with a smile. “Can you imagine?”

 

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