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0706 PD: Reporting from Afghanistan

Mike Gangwer Published on 07 August 2006

Reporting to you from Bagram, Afghanistan…

As I wrote last month, I am currently on a temporary duty assignment with the Bagram Reconstruction Team, located in the north central part of Afghanistan. I will be here until the end of January 2007. For the next eight months, I will write my article from here.

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My regular work assignment, with Michigan NRCS in East Lansing, will be waiting for me when I return next year.

I am a civilian agricultural adviser. I represent the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and my assignment here is administered jointly with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

I am the only civilian adviser on this Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). The Bagram PRT is one of about 24 PRTs distributed in various provinces. Some are administered by NATO, some by other coalition forces and about 10 by the U.S. military. Our PRT is jointly operated by the U.S. military and a cadre of South Korean soldiers and engineers. The U.S. military component consists of Army officers, Army reserve officers and Air Force reserve officers. Thus, our entire team is a mix across several military branches, including civilians.

What do we do? Let me write our mission statement:

“Conduct civil-military operations that enhance the legitimacy of the Central Government of Afghanistan through facilitating provincial development, security and reconstruction in order to create enduring security and stability within the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa.”

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I am writing weekly reports about my progress and observations here. For the rest of this article, I will draw from my Week 3 report. I am describing three photos that accompany this article.

Afghan students
The paradox of a school visit is readily apparent in the photo of the Afghan girls. These beautiful children with delightful faces and playful energy are not in school. Just outside the photo is a school. And sitting in the classroom are Afghan boys. Their teacher scratches out the lesson on a chalkboard. There are no computers, no phones, no overheads, no projectors. In each classroom are 24 boys, all with dark hair and dressed in a cornucopia of colors. The boys, usually in sandals, squirm in their seats as the guy with white hair looks into the window. “Who is this tall man, and why does he have a different uniform than the 15 or so soldiers nearby?”

Please consider this: If we, as overseers of federal taxpayer dollars, are paying for a new school in rural Afghanistan, then should we require that both girls and boys attend? Yes.

Thus, in many places, although the students are segregated (boys go for a time period, then girls a different time), we have made progress. Remember our mission is encouraging self-governance, including literacy, especially for children.

I can think of little that compares to this effort, hoping that someday, in this very school, these girls will learn science and humanities and from the spark of wonder will come the awe of discovery that drives progress. But recently, while they were playing and distracted, I clicked the camera shutter and captured them at their best. Note the juxtaposition of the community with the background, just out of the floodplain. This is a very dry, arid region with dryland wheat in the background. Just about 50 meters (about 164 feet) below the bluff where I stood in this demined area were the deposited alluvial soils growing green plants. They were as green as green can be against the sand desert.

Herding cows
A man and his daughter (not attending school) are moving cattle over the dry landscape (see photo, page 43). We stopped our mobile force and asked the herder some questions. He said about half of these native cows are milked by hand, producing a liter of milk (about a quart) every day. They live on wheat straw during the winter; they eat no grain. The herder did not know what the words vaccinations, mastitis or dry matter intake (DMI) meant. He did know his job for the day was to keep them out of the wheat fields. By the way, wheat harvest begins in two to three weeks, so I will report on that. There will be no combines, only hand work.

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Memorial Day
On the morning of May 28, the Task Force Tiger (TF Tiger) Commanding Officer, a group of guests and as many soldiers, airmen, women and civilians who could meet did so on the flight line of the Bagram Air Field. You will notice in the photo our backdrop – a cargo airplane displaying the U.S. flag. Before the heat of day and under the bright Afghan morning sun, these men and women paid tribute to their mission, their role and their commitment in this faraway land. The speaker reminded us that we are here to make a difference.

I could not have heard more meaningful words. I have, in past on this holiday, reflected on visits to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. I have tried to understand what soldiering means and how what they do brings meaning to our lives as civilians.

I recently received some clarity after pondering. Standing on the flight line and watching the solemn and sublime tribute to and from men and women in harm’s way was a rapture for me. As we stood there, planes departed, Humvees left the wire, nurses cared for the injured at a base hospital, someone talked to their loved ones at home, a woman sang to her kids over a Web camera, a guard tower soldier scanned the horizon and others simply slept. PD

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