News: District development takes hold in Watapur
Story by Staff Sgt. Gary Witte
KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — U.S. Army Soldiers often refer to the Shenigam Footbridge as the "Indiana Jones Bridge."
It does not take much imagination to see why the 30-year-old bridge in the Watapur district of eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province has a reputation, assembled from a seemingly random assortment of old broken planks, piled stones and worn lumber.
No deaths have been reported, but children and animals have been injured falling from the narrow pathway into the Pech River below. This will soon change with the building of a modern footbridge by the Afghan government under the supervision of the District Development Assembly. It will be the district's first large-scale project under the program.
Gulkhan, sector director for the Watapur DDA, said he expects the bridge will be replaced in about three months. Construction is scheduled to start in February.
"It was a big problem for the villagers," Gulkhan said of the old bridge, noting residents were enthusiastic when told of the new construction. "They became really happy."
In Watapor, there are 13 DDA members, representing about 60 Afghan villages, meeting on a weekly basis with an International Security Assistance Force civil affairs team. Where previously, ISAF units would determine needed projects and then handle their construction through the Commander Emergency Relief Program, now the village representatives decide on priorities and oversee their implementation.
U.S. Army Capt. Shaun Conlin, of Fairfax Station, Va., commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Lethal, said it has taken time for the national DDA program to gain a foothold here.
It has done so by initially concentrating on smaller — yet high-impact — projects that take less than a month to complete, such as wells and retaining walls, he said. A total of 27 out of 42 proposed projects have been completed in the district.
"They can see the results within a month," Conlin said. "It builds the capacity and the legitimacy of the local government."
While the DDA still uses the Commander's Emergency Relief Program as a budget for its projects, this money will eventually be replaced by funds from the Afghan government, he said.
The DDA is not just responsible for identifying needs for the community. It also comes up with the projects, requests local bids from contractors and then provides both quality assurance and quality control.
"Until the Afghans see the local government is capable of taking care of the needs of the district, there will always be some friction," Conlin said.
One sign of hope is that about half of the DDA representatives come from areas of the district considered hostile to government and ISAF officials.
"It speaks volumes that representatives from villages that normally don't want anything to do with the Afghan government want to get involved in this process," Conlin said.
The unit at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle is continually seeking more involvement in the DDA. During one of several weekly meetings, 2nd Lt. Florent A. Groberg, of Supply, N.C., aplatoon leader with Company C talked to elders of Ander Seil village.
The elders discussed their desire for electricity and even street lights for their community.
"It's our job to let them know what's going on and get them involved," Groberg said prior to the meeting. "That's the only way we can be successful in our mission."