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Story Publication logo December 16, 2007

Fort Bragg soldiers make a difference in Afghanistan


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Across Afghanistan suicide attacks are on the rise and in much of the country U.S.-allied forces...

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Multiple Authors

Kevin Maurer, for the Pulitzer Center
Khost, Afghanistan

Lt. Col. Scottie Custer is an 82nd Airborne Division artillery officer in a place where the big guns he's trained to use are worthless.

Navy Cmdr. David Adams is a former submarine driver leading a team of Fort Bragg-trained sailors in a landlocked country.

And Arsala Jamal — a man schooled in accounting who once kept the books for the University of Nebraska's education center in Pakistan — is the appointed governor of a war-torn province in Afghanistan.

These three are the authors of a seemingly unlikely success story. A story producing something rare in Afghanistan — hope.

Khost province is one of the few bright spots in a country increasingly plagued by suicide bombings, insurgent attacks, lagging redevelopment and a lack of faith in the Afghan government's ability to lead.

Conventional wisdom says that if something is working in Afghanistan, it shouldn't be here. A case could be made that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have roots in Khost province: This is one of the places where the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon trained.

As recently as two years ago, the province's main city — Khost — was a dreary place with crumbling Soviet-era concrete office buildings, garbage-strewn streets and only a few paved roads. The smell of raw sewage hung in the air.

Last year, Khost was plagued by suicide bombers and attacks by insurgents. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were constantly in the province, slipping easily in and out of neighboring Pakistan.

These days, the signs of a community coming back to life are impossible to miss.

The market at the center of Khost city is clogged with shoppers and carts bringing goods to the stalls that line the road. Teenagers with motorized rickshas wait for fares on the outskirts of the shopping district.

Towering over everything is a new purple building with glass windows from floor to ceiling.

But even as the people of Khost take the first steps away from war and poverty, a question hangs over the region: How long can it last?

Khost is a pocket of success surrounded by provinces still wracked by violence, a booming drug economy and other problems.

"Khost will be affected by the larger insecurity, opium production and corruption," said Caroline Wadhams, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a think tank. "If you don't deal with the larger problems, Khost is doomed in the long term."

Khost's success also is the result of the collaboration of three men, two of them Americans who will leave next year.

The roots of the turnaround were planted a year ago over servings of homemade lasagna.

Adams and Custer met for dinner at Custer's house on Fort Bragg. It was their first chance to get to know one another before they took up commands in the volatile province on the Pakistan border.

Security of the province would fall to Custer — a dead ringer for Robert Duvall's character in "Apocalypse Now." A workaholic, Custer is often up firing e-mails to his staff at 2 a.m. He seems made of equal parts enthusiasm and confidence, fueled by the diet Coke or a cup of coffee always in one fist. Anyone not in agreement with him is a "whacker."

Adams, a former speech-writer for the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, would head up reconstruction. He's the quieter partner, with the measured speech of a college professor.

Adams volunteered to take over the Provisional Reconstruction Team in Khost. He had tracked terrorists in the province in the 1990s on board submarines — at one point almost shooting Tomahawk missiles at a training camp where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding — and continued to follow developments there even after he left the fleet.

Both men knew the province was plagued by suicide bombings and insurgent attacks.

They agreed that stopping the violence depended on getting soldiers out where the people would see them and the insurgents would fear them. To put their plan in place, they knew they needed a man with whom they could work.

They had yet to meet Jamal.

About the time that Custer and Adams were meeting over an Italian dinner, Jamal was in Kabul working for the United Nations as a project manager.

When he mentioned to friends in the central government that he would like to serve, he got a call from Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Would he take the governor's job in Khost?

Jamal is a native of Paktika, a neighboring province. He knew how bad conditions were in Khost, and he didn't really want the job. But, against his better judgment, he took it.

A month after he assumed power last year, Khost city was hit by 13 suicide bombers.

Custer arrived in Afghanistan in February.

As one of his first moves, he worked with Jamal to have Afghan forces — the national police and army — take over security for Khost city. A key to that was the construction of checkpoints on roads leading into the city. Those checkpoints, manned by the Afghan forces, were a safeguard against insurgents bringing in guns and bombs.

Turning those duties over to the Afghans left his paratroopers — about 130 of them — to cover the province's 11 subdistricts.

It was in deciding how to use his men that Custer really got creative. His move came as much out of personal necessity as it did from strategy.

Custer injured his neck on a jump at Fort Bragg years ago and knew that he couldn't make the bone-jarring rides over the rocky paths out to the districts on a regular basis. Plus, convoys to some of the outlying districts can take several hours — too long for troops based at Forward Operating Salerno outside Khost city to react effectively to Taliban insurgents.

Custer's solution? He moved his men out into the subdistricts.

At first, the soldiers spent only a few nights in the subdistricts at a time, then returned to Salerno for supplies and rest. One day on the treadmill in the gym — Custer runs six miles a day — he decided to kick his troops off the big American base and force them to live out in the province.

Custer picked the worst places to put them first.

Teams of paratroopers set up in small fortresses — like the forts in Indian territory in the years of America's westward expansion — with Afghan police and army units.

Soldiers grumbled. The shift meant they were in spartan conditions, away from the hot showers and hot food of Salerno.

But Custer sees success in the strategy. Standing in front of a new district center in Sabari this fall, he got a big smile and a fist pump from the sub-governor, Luftallah.

"They know the people by name now," he said. "They know the towns."

Luftallah said through an interpreter that since the paratroopers had moved into the district, the Taliban had moved out.

Numbers bear that out. Insurgent attacks and roadside bombs are down significantly compared with February, when the paratroopers arrived.

Custer's men have even intercepted Taliban radio transmissions telling fighters to stay out of the province. Seems it's too hard to keep from running into the Americans.

With the Taliban staying out, aid money has poured in. Adams says the improved security makes it easier for him to lobby for funding of reconstruction projects.

His job has been to put that money to work. It's a role he believes is an important piece of winning in Afghanistan.

"There are two paths for Afghanistan," he says. "Roads and schools, or war and destruction."

When Adams took over, there was a glut of relief projects on the books, but nothing was ranked according to importance. A project such as a dam that would improve irrigation provincewide was going through the same approval process as a request for school furniture.

Like Custer, Adams worked with Jamal to improve the process. They came up with a budget and organized projects by priorities. And they lumped like projects together, to keep from having to run every little thing through the bureaucracy.

Instead of requesting one school, Adams' team requested 25. Same with the irrigation dams. Soon, the province was getting approved for dozens of schools and dams and miles of new roads.

With their system, getting the money is the easy part.

Negotiating the tangle of tribal rivalries to make sure projects create good will is tougher. Most days, Adams walks a diplomatic tightrope. His easygoing manner helps him keep his balance.

When the Afghan government wanted to put a diversion dam next to a village outside Khost city earlier this year, a rival tribe in a neighboring village objected.

Negotiations went nowhere, and the tribe finally threatened to destroy the dam if it were built.

Adams shut the whole project down and moved on to something else.

That ended the dispute, at least on the surface. A village leader named Major Najeebullah, the leader of one of the factions, came to Adams to plead his case for the dam.

"There is no more dispute," Najeebullah said. "I will meet with the elders and make an agreement."

Adams had a smile on his face as the Najeebullah tried to put a positive spin on the ugly fight. With each point, the Afghan stabbed the air with his prosthetic hand. Najeebullah was missing his legs and his left arm.

After listening for almost an hour, Adams told Najeebullah to take the issue up with the director of irrigation in Khost — and with the governor.

And there, Adams and Custer will say, lies the secret to success in Khost. The governor has the power, and the two Americans have not tried to usurp it.

They know that this is his country.

It is not unusual in either Iraq or Afghanistan to see local leaders deferring to U.S. military officers when it comes to making decisions. But in the weekly security meetings in Khost, Jamal is clearly in charge.

In those meetings — held in a building overlooking the city — Afghan police and soldiers meet with Jamal, Custer and Adams to discuss plans and work out problems.

At one gathering in the fall, Jamal sat at the head of the table. He kept the meeting on track, and all decisions came from him. At one point, Custer forcefully made the case that the Afghan National Police should provide men for an upcoming mission. But it didn't happen until Jamal approved it.

"We all work for the governor," Custer says, almost like a mantra. He often forces Afghans to swear allegiance to Jamal before he will deal with them.

The governor's cooperation and leadership have been key to improving security in the province. But his leadership is most apparent in the reconstruction effort.

Adams negotiates through the bureaucracy of the approval process. It is Jamal who makes sure the funding is going to projects worth the money.

"The more bricks and rocks that are put together, the more people realize something is happening," Jamal said. "If you really work, there is an opportunity to make your dreams come true."

In six months, aid spending in the province has tripled. The money has gone to build 30 diversion dams, six municipal buildings and 56 schools.

All that pales, though, next to the paved roads that are changing life for so many in the province.

In the previous five years, the province added only 19 miles of paved road. In six months with Adams and Custer this year, Jamal's government added 50 miles to the network.

People can now drive all the way to some of the other districts on smooth roads instead of the dirt tracks through the many wadis — dry river beds — that get washed out in the winter.

Jamal said when Afghans see paved roads, they smile.

In Afghanistan, success comes with a price.

Five times, the Taliban has tried to assassinate Jamal. In October, he escaped harm but two civilians and three of his bodyguards were hurt when a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into the governor's convoy.

Jamal lives in a white compound that is more like a fortress than a home. Guards search all visitors before admitting them inside the thick walls that surround the governor's house.

Jamal keeps about 20 parakeets in a cage near the front gate. He bought the birds as a gift for his daughter. Whenever he walks by, he stops to watch them. They remind him of the personal price he has paid for Khost.

He had to send his family to Toronto. Jamal didn't want bodyguards toting AK-47s to accompany his children to class.

So he understands what it means for men such as Adams and Custer to leave their families for months to serve in Afghanistan.

"We are all together in this war against terrorism," Jamal said.

At night, Adams likes to sit on the roof of his headquarters smoking a cigar and listening to James Taylor on his iPod. He can see the city only a few miles away, down a newly paved road that will be clogged with people headed to jobs or school in the morning.

The improvements are readily apparent. But he worries.

"Khost is fragile," he warns. "We've improved this place in six months, but don't think that can't change."

Khost may be a glimpse of the best the U.S. and its allies can hope for in Afghanistan.

The province is more peaceful than those around it. American money is producing real results that make people's lives better. But the threat of the Taliban isn't over, and it is doubtful that the Afghan forces are ready to keep the peace if the U.S. soldiers leave.

"It is Afghanistan," Custer said. "But we are going to hand off Khost a lot better than we received it."

A simple ride into the city illustrates his point. Two years ago, the chief thing a traveler noticed along the main road in Khost was the garbage that lined it. The trash is gone. In its place are newly planted saplings.

Cities without hope don't waste money on trees.


"Even a model has its problems"

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

The news from much of Afghanistan this year has been bleak. Even in the White House, officials concluded in November that the strategic goals for 2007 would not be met.

The National Security Council came up with benchmarks at the end of 2006 to measure progress in security, the economy and governance. But only the combat goals — fighting the Taliban — have been met.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of progress being made. ... I would think that from (the Taliban) standpoint, things are looking decent," an intelligence official told The Washington Post.

The negative assessment is echoed in a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which warned in the spring that Afghanistan is headed into a "danger zone." The center found that Afghans are "losing trust in their government because of an escalation in violence."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that while Afghanistan has many problems, he sees "reason for optimism tempered by caution."

One reason to be optimistic is Khost. He said the province is a model counterinsurgency campaign that has yielded gains in security and economic development.

"It is an example of potential gains in other areas long considered ungovernable — gains made possible by honest and effective local leadership coupled with the skills and resources of the United States and our international partners," Gates said.

But all of the bad news has prompted another think tank — the Center for American Progress — to call for a new strategy.

The center, in a report published in November, calls for more troops for security and reconstruction, better links with the central government and a program to cut exploding opium cultivation.

"Deterioration of security has undone the ability to get reconstruction to the extent promised," said Larry Korb, one of the report's authors.

The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute based in Washington.

Many of the strategies suggested in the report sound like the approach taken in Khost. But even in Khost, progress has been slowed by the weakness of the national government. President Hamid Karzai has struggled to extend his leadership beyond Kabul. The reconstruction effort in Khost gets little direction from the capital. And the people have little faith in the central government's ability to help them move forward.

"Everybody is working on their own and no one seems to be in charge to coordinate," said Korb. "The whole is less than the sum of its parts."

Afghan students on mission to serve

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Mohammad Ibrahim originally wanted to study engineering. But high test scores landed him in the medical program at Khost University.

He wants to be a doctor now, but has plans to improve more than just the province's health. He wants to see better schools and roads.

He wants a better Afghanistan and has faith that it is possible. The university, which moved back across the border from Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban, is making such faith possible, especially as the city becomes secure enough for students to think more about studying than about suicide bombers.

Khost University is one of 18 in Afghanistan. It has 2,000 students and a faculty of more than 80 professors.

Many of them are on a mission.

"I want to serve for the future," said Wali Rahman, above.

He is studying agriculture and thinks Afghanistan needs to rehabilitate its irrigation system and get better seeds and fertilizers. That is the only way that Afghans will stop growing poppies. There is no poppy production in Khost, but in southern Afghanistan, farmers grow more than 90 percent of the world's supply of opium-producing poppies.

Rahman wants to replace the poppy crop with wheat, soybeans, corn and rice. Finding another cash crop is the key.

"We have to provide the training to improve their life," Rahman said. "And change their minds from growing poppies."

The university is housed in a two-story building near the center of the city. It is spartan, and much of the equipment is outdated or broken. In October, engineering equipment was thrown in the corner of an upstairs classroom.

"We have no shelves," Professor Nekmal said with a shrug.

University officials and students are looking forward to moving into a complex built outside the city by the United Arab Emirates.

But Nekmal, an English teacher, says it's not the building that is most important.

"If there are people, there is a country," Nekmal said in his sing-song accent. "If there are students, there is a university."

Khost native is aspiring politician

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Saifullah remembers the Taliban with revulsion.

After an English class one winter afternoon, he stopped to buy raisins for his mother. Just as he got to the vendor in the Khost market, the call to prayer echoed across the city. Saifullah, above, had already prayed and ignored the call.

He was paying for the raisins when two Taliban thugs dressed in black clothes and turbans showed up in a taxi. They yelled at him to get to the mosque and pray. He told them that he'd already prayed, but they didn't listen and started beating him with a baton.

He gets angry just thinking about it.

"I will never forget," he says. "They believe in Islam just in saying, not in action."

For the past two years, Saifullah has worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military at Forward Operating Base Salerno outside Khost city. He is 23 years old, but looks younger.

Saifullah has no idea why people still join the Taliban.

"Why would you go and live in the mountains when you can get a job and live with your family?" Saifullah asked.

Since the fall of the Taliban, his life has improved dramatically. He has a good job, a new wife and a baby on the way. To his delight, the child-to-be is a boy.

"That is what you wish for," Saifullah said with what could only be called a proud smirk.

He also has plans. The kind of plans that depend on a secure future.

He wants three more children. He plans to study political science at Khost University. And he wants to be governor of Khost.

He makes a compelling case for the job. Saifullah knows the people and the tribes. He understands the culture and has a good relationship with American soldiers.

"If you have all those things, you'll work," Saifullah said. "I hope to do good things.

Center director is women's advocate

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Rogul Zadran may be the only woman in Khost who doesn't wear a burqa.

Six years after the fall of the Taliban, it is still uncommon to see women in the conservative province not covered head to toe.

But she says that these days that's by choice, not because of a Taliban edict.

"It is a culture thing," said Zadran, the director of the Khost Women's Center. "It is not a forced thing by somebody. The Taliban used it wrongly."

Zadran, above, said life has improved for women in Khost. They are getting out of the homes and seeking jobs and education. Such activities were unheard of under the strict rule of the Taliban.

"We were completely surrounded by the four walls of the house," she said.

Zadran was born in Parawan province in central Afghanistan and educated in Kabul. She took the Women's Center job in 2002.

Her message to the women of Afghanistan is simple: "If you don't speak up for yourself, in the future you'll have nothing," she tells them.

Zadran thinks women are the key to a lasting peace.

"Women don't want to participate in war. They can teach their brothers peace and to put their weapons down."

Journalist says Taliban better at getting message to people

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Elias Wahdat, above, gets a text message almost immediately after every Taliban attack.

Wahdat — the Reuters and BBC stringer in Khost — said that's a problem for the U.S. military coalition.

The Taliban is doing a better job than the coalition at getting its message out to people.

Wahdat started his journalism career at an Afghan news service. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he was the editor of the Khost city magazine.

Wahdat said Khost is an important province for the Americans and the Taliban. It is the gateway to the capital from Pakistan — where Taliban and al-Qaida forces have holed up — and the support of the people of Khost is essential if President Hamid Karzai's government wants to survive.

"If the people were not supporting the government, the fighting would be going on at the gates of Kabul," Wahdat said.

But he said Karzai's government is still fighting for legitimacy in Khost despite being in power for three years. The president just can't shake the impression that he is a puppet propped up by the United States.

In Khost, Wahdat said, the people think that nothing that comes from the central government or the coalition mouthpieces has any credibility.

"When the coalition makes a mess like killing civilians, they bring the government and tribes together and apologize," Wahdat said.

"They tell the people that it will never happen again, and then tomorrow it happens again."

A long-term role for 82nd

By Kevin Maurer
Staff writer

Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division has been in on the rebuilding effort in Khost since the beginning.

Forward Operating Base Salerno, the main military installation in Khost province, is named for the site of a World War II parachute jump by the division. The 82nd's 307th Engineer Battalion built the base in 2002, shortly after the Taliban fell.

Since then, 82nd paratroopers have served regular tours in Khost. They have patrolled the border, provided security for elections and fought the resurgent Taliban.

The base, surrounded by mountains, is only about 30 miles from Pakistan, where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have found safe havens.

Salerno started out as a collection of tents. There were no showers — soldiers had to use a bucket to clean up — and there were no flushing toilets. Hot food was a treat, and there was no power or flooring in the tents.

It has improved steadily over the years and is one of the largest bases in eastern Afghanistan. A new concrete dining facility was completed earlier this year.

The base also is one of the largest employers in the region. On a daily basis, more than 1,000 Afghans do everything from cleaning the bathrooms to building barracks.


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