U.S. Teams Build Infrastructure in Afghanistan U.S. military looks to a provincial reconstruction team to implement anti-Taliban strategy, including building a road through the most dangerous part of Kunar — the Korengal Valley.

U.S. Teams Build Infrastructure in Afghanistan

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Afghanistan's northeastern province of Kunar is the busiest combat area in the country for U.S. troops. The Talibans stage almost daily attacks. Ten U.S. soldiers have been killed in Kunar since June. U.S. military officers say soldiers have taken out key Taliban command posts and disrupted their supply lines. But they hasten to add that there is no military solution to the war in Kunar. Instead, they're looking to a provincial reconstruction team to turn the tide. The team is made up of U.S. service members and civilians. And their plan is to build a road through the most dangerous part of Kunar — Korengal Valley.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

orchards and streams at a determined clip. The ranking member is Navy Commander Larry LeGree. He says the team is headed to Omar, a hillside village in the Korengal Valley.

What's in the village of Omar?

Commander LARRY LEGREE (U.S. Army): It's just the next big population center up the valley. I want to get my eyes on how this road will go through here.

NELSON: The road he is talking about will be humble by American standards. It will cost $11 million. It will be about 18 feet wide and 26 miles long. But LeGree, who heads Kunar's provincial reconstruction team, says this road could do more to harm the Taliban here than any military action.

Earlier in his office at the provincial reconstruction team headquarters, LeGree explained why.

Cmdr. LEGREE: We're not necessarily looking to build fast. We're looking to build, to make an economic impact. So what we're looking to do is provide a lot of employment. And it lines the incentives for what we're looking for, which is, you know, a fighting-age male holding a shovel instead of a gun.

NELSON: Work on the road begins next month. It will take more than a year to complete. It will provide hundreds of jobs for Kunar's largely unemployed population. LeGree is especially keen on getting the contractor to hire young Korengal Valley men, who might otherwise be lured by the insurgents. LeGree says a regular paycheck will make the young men think twice about risking their lives fighting better-equipped U.S. troops.

It's a strategy that LeGree and many other American officers here say is the only way to win the war in Afghanistan, a strategy that calls for boosting access and trade to the mountainous country's isolated communities, to build government centers, schools and hospitals, to improve the lives of Afghans and thereby reduce the appeal of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

LeGree says this approach has already brought vast improvements in Kunar. Newly paved roads have sparked a boom in commerce in the province's Pech Valley. Fighting there has largely stopped.

Army Staff Sergeant Wayne Amos of Arizona, who provides security for reconstruction-team convoys, says the new road in the Pech Valley also makes it harder for Taliban fighters to plant roadside bombs because they can't be so easily disguised in pavement.

Staff Sergeant WAYNE AMOS (U.S. Army): Now that we have this road here, it's harder for them to put IEDs into the road. And it's getting harder for them to find points for them to hit us. It just kind of takes away the fear of IEDs for us on these type of roads here.

NELSON: Since the Pech Valley road was built, more than a dozen new stores have sprung up in a village called Nangalam. Here, vendors sell fresh fruit and goods from major cities that are now accessed in hours rather than days.

Mr. BRYAN RHODES (Contractor, U.S. Agency for International Development): So my name is Bryan.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language).

NELSON: Eager to spur that growth, Bryan Rhodes recently joined LeGree on a trip to Nangalam. Rhodes is a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. With the help of a translator, he brainstorms the shopkeepers on how American money might help.

Mr. RHODES: If you had $25,000, let's say, to invest in a business in Nangalam, what would you invest in?

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language).

Mr. RHODES: Or a small factory, what would the best small factory in Pech?

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language).

NELSON: This salt vendor says his community could benefit from a flour mill. Rhodes says it's a good idea.

Mr. RHODES: You don't have to use a lot of power for a flour mill. It can be animal-driven. It can be water-driven.

NELSON: The warm reception the reconstruction team gets as it moves across the Pech Valley this day suggests the strategy is working. Even battle-hardened infantry soldiers like Staff Sergeant Dawayne Krepel embrace the hands-on approach. Krepel, who is on his fifth tour in Afghanistan, says his company recently helped curry favor with residents of Kandagal using the British sport called cricket.

Staff Sergeant DAWAYNE KREPEL (U.S. Army): We noticed them playing when we first moved in. They built their own sticks and built their own wickets. And so we thought, in order to get close to the community, we'd set up a cricket tournament. So we set it up amongst all the villages in the Pech. And we had a great turnout, over like 150 people. It was great. But now, every time we come down here, they want cricket balls. So I thought…

NELSON: These are tennis balls, is there a difference?

Staff Sgt. KREPEL: Yeah - yeah, they are tennis balls. All they do is take black tape and tape them up and that's how they play cricket. So we're trying to, you know, build a relationship. So every time I come down, I buy them 10 cricket balls and wild for them. So…

NELSON: Do you know how to play cricket?

Staff Sgt. KREPEL: No, I actually don't know how to play cricket. It's fun watching the little kids play, though.

NELSON: Back in the hillside village of Omar, Krepel's commander, Lieutenant Kareem Hernandez, introduces LeGree and his provincial reconstruction team to village elders in woolen pakul caps and baggy tunics and trousers.

Lieutenant KAREEM HERNANDEZ (U.S. Army): Remember we talked during the Shura about some of the projects you want to do in the future? I told you guys PRT might come and see us.

Cmdr. LEGREE: You delivered, you brought them in.

NELSON: The group heads up to the guest house of village elder Ahmanat Khan to talk business over green tea and sweets.

Mr. AHMANAT KHAN (Village Elder): (Speaking in foreign language).

NELSON: Ahmanat Khan tells the officers he's happy they are building the road to connect the Korengal Valley to the booming communities in Pech Valley. But he avoids answering Hernandez, who asks how the Taliban might use the road.

Lt. HERNANDEZ: Come on. Come on, Ahmanat. I know you hear the bombs and the shooting. Let me just speak frankly with you, Ahmanat. What do you think your future is going to look like? Like, what's going to happen here? What's going to happen with the Korengal? What's going to happen with Omar? What's going to happen when this road is done? What do you think of what's going on in the Korengal? I know you know there's fighting in there. You tell me you're your future is going to look like.

NELSON: But Ahmanat Khan doesn't bite. He repeats how valuable the road will be for his people. He says he knows nothing of the Taliban. Hernandez says he's not surprised. He says most villagers appreciate American help, but not enough to turn in relatives or friends who are in the tree-lined Korengal hillsides fighting U.S. soldiers.

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