News: Spirit of America in Afghanistan: Helping US troops create something out of nothing
By Capt. Jo Smoke
ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan has impacted the Afghan population in more ways than just security.
Afghan government officials and local citizens have become accustomed to the benevolent and consistent socio-economic support of American forces.
During the past 10 years of conflict, numerous funding sources have been accessible to military units for operational expenditures to provide development and reconstruction throughout the country. But as the military campaign in Afghanistan experienced force reductions and mandatory budget cutbacks, the ability for a unit to request civil-military operational expenditures became increasingly limited.
Thus, as the U.S. presence has decreased in Afghanistan, so has the military pot of money available to units who continue to improve the lives of locals.
Combined Task Force Duke, part of International Security Assistance Force, Regional Command (South), faced this project development quandary when trying to support the local government and population with lasting and beneficial support in Zabul province, Afghanistan, from June 2013 to February 2014.
The task force’s mission to develop sustainable opportunities was hindered by bureaucratic red tape, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, budgetary constraints, and imposed limitations on the commander’s discretionary fund.
The lack of operational funds greatly impacted the mission of the CTF Duke Female Engagement Team, which recognized an opportunity to produce enduring effects by refurbishing the local women’s center that was suffering from a protracted absence of power and water generation.
The local women’s center, which is operated by the Zabul Directorate of Women’s Affairs, Sadiqa Jalali, has long provided a socio-economic safe haven for women and children. The enclosed compound includes a community garden co-op and green house, with a nine-room facility comprised of a tailoring center, conference room, Islamic study area, voting registration site, English classroom, kitchen for culinary lessons, and a women’s library.
Although limited GIROA funds trickled down from Kabul to maintain the operational and management expenses for the classes at the women’s center, the Zabul DOWA was ranked 33rd out of 34 provinces for budgetary support.
As a result, government funds scarcely covered the management costs of general maintenance and fuel for heating, water, and electrical generation. In an area known for its strict and conservative Islamic viewpoints on women’s rights, gender affairs initiatives in Zabul did not appear sustainable.
The DOWA’s ability to provide socio-economic support to local women was previously reliant on donations from coalition forces and non-government organizations.
By the summer of 2013, though, several NGOs had suddenly ceased operations in Zabul and CTF Duke was faced with budgetary limitations. By July 2013, the crops in the community garden were dying and the technical outreach courses for women were stagnant due to lack of electricity.
Without an expedient avenue of assistance, the women’s center was destined for failure. Despite the absence of available military funding sources, CTF Duke FET was determined to seek alternative solutions to assist the DOWA, and ultimately hundreds of local women and children.
After researching NGOs operating in Afghanistan, the U.S. nonprofit organization known as the Spirit of America became FET’s primary prospect.
As a public charity, SOA’s primary mission is to “support the safety, success and humanitarian work of Americans serving abroad by helping them assist local people, and by connecting them to the capabilities, resources and goodwill of the American people and private sector.”
Founded in 2003, the organization has provided millions of dollars in targeted assistance to help the U.S. military and diplomats in more than 20 countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia.
It publicized its humanitarian partnered framework as “fast, flexible and decentralized,” which was highly appealing after dealing with hierarchical delays in seeking funding support.
But the most attractive component of the organization was that their field representatives were all veterans, many of whom had experience in Afghanistan.
Prior to contacting SOA, CTF Duke developed a prioritized scope of work and the bill of materials required for the reconstruction of the women’s center. The FET contacted SOA headquarters in California via email with a grant proposal detailing how their generous support will ultimately provide sustainable support for socio-economic programs for the women of Zabul province.
Their expeditious response was symbolic of their touted “fast, flexible, and decentralized” approach to humanitarian and economic assistance.
Within 24 hours, SOA Support Program Manager Matt Valkovic responded with guidance to contact their Afghanistan field representative Mike Harte.
Within a week, Harte and the FET had planned a mission to visit the women’s center so he could assess the project requirements firsthand. Less than a month later, the grant was approved for more than $6,000. Harte had returned to Zabul several times to meet with a local vendor, resource supplies, and coordinate the construction with our engineers.
By mid-November, the DOWA’s center had running water, a working generator, operational solar panels, and a new sunroom to implement a classroom with a natural heat source during the winter months.
It was a true partnered and sustainable project: the CTF Duke engineers mentored the Afghan engineers on electrical repairs, Afghan police partnered with our unit’s security force to provide security at the compound during construction, local vendors worked with SOA’s Harte to resource materials from Kandahar, and the DOWA and FET publicized the success of the operation to their own respective higher leadership.
CTF Duke’s civil-military efforts would have been futile without SOA’s innovative solutions for local citizens and government officials of Zabul province.
As a way to express gratitude for SOA’s charitable support, CTF Duke Leaders and FET reached out to other units in the battlefield to publicize the benefits of working with the nonprofit organization.
By January, Harte had resourced more than $20,000 worth of local materials in support of five different military sections and units, including medical supplies for a clinic in the north, blankets for security checkpoints along the central highway, solar-powered speaker systems for local leaders to broadcast announcements, handheld radios for Afghan security officials, and recording devices for Afghan National Army radio broadcasts.
All of these donated materials from SOA were provided in direct response to operational needs identified by deployed U.S. soldiers who are working with Afghan soldiers and citizens.
Since the DOWA project, CTF Duke FET has partnered with SOA again on another gender project to implement the first internet computer lab at a girl’s high school. As the only current gender affairs project in southern Afghanistan, Harte jumped on board at the concept of empowering young female students by bridging the education gap through technology-based programs.
February 2014 marks the final phase of project completion. However, the opening ceremony of the internet lab will likely overlap with CTF Duke’s departure from Afghanistan.
It is a bittersweet feeling for many Duke soldiers, but those who worked with SOA anticipate returning home with the profound sense of accomplishment at having helped hundreds of local citizens, government officials, and more than 2,000 female students.
Many CTF Duke soldiers will likely deploy in the near future to other theaters where civil-military operations are crucial for mission success. Fortunately, these soldiers will reap the benefits of partnering with SOA again by reaching out to its field representatives who are operating in numerous theaters across the globe, eager to provide enduring humanitarian, civic and economic assistance.
To read more about SoA’s partnered project with CTF Duke FET, visit the SOA webpage at https://www.spiritofamerica.net/recent-blog-posts/1534-female-engagement-team-soa-rebuild-women-s-center-in-qalat.html