PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Forward Operating Base Gardez is historically significant ground.
To the north stand three watch towers built by Alexander the Great almost 2,500 years ago. To the southwest, a five-minute ride by helicopter ride away, the first engagement took place between the Taliban and conventional forces in March of 2002.
During Operation Anaconda, elements of the 101st Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, special operations forces and Afghan allies, engaged the Taliban and al-Qaeda in a vicious ground battle that lasted two weeks.
“This has been key terrain for lots of people, from Alexander the Great all the way to our time,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Chong, the commander of Provincial Reconstruction Team Paktya.
It is only fitting that FOB Gardez would also be the location of the first PRT, established in 2002. The PRT was located here because this area was initially considered the heart of the insurgency. Geographically, PRT Paktya’s location facilitates travel because the Khowst-Gardez Road runs east to west along the north wall of the FOB and is a direct link to Kabul and other major cities and provinces.
After training and mentoring the Afghans of Paktya province for more than 10 years, the PRT is shutting down operations. The combined civilian-military team of U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development personnel will quietly take their leave a few months after the new year.
“Economics, governance and agriculture are the three focuses of the PRT,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Jennifer Hoffman, a civil affairs specialist with PRT Paktya. “One of the biggest issues that we’ve been facing is, ‘what does transition look like?’”
In reality, it will not look like anything at all, at least not immediately.
“Our job right now is to make sure they [Afghans] have connections and are resilient,” said Chong. “When countering an insurgency, you don’t declare victory, you just quietly go away.”
This sums up the doctrine behind the mission of a PRT. Instead of running kinetic operations and kicking in doors, the PRT conducts meetings, classes and conferences to instruct and advise the Afghan people on how they can rebuild a society that has been ravaged by decades of war.
“Counter-insurgency is a thinking man’s war,” Chong added. “It’s a chess game with rules that are ill-defined and vague. The enemy fights you in ways that are hard to counter.”
The PRT will depart under the radar, but it has had a demonstrable and sustainable effect on Paktya province. The signs of hard-work and dedication are hard to miss.
On the agricultural side, progress can be seen in the actions of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
“When the PRT cut off their [GIRoA] money, it was a huge wake-up call to them,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Guy Moon, officer-in-charge of the agribusiness section of PRT Paktya. “They realized that we were finally leaving and they would have to do this all on their own.”
GIRoA’s response was encouraging.
“Instead of asking for money for projects, they [GIRoA] now ask for our mentorship in implementing their own plans and ideas themselves,” Moon added.
The districts are also starting to meet regularly to talk about security, imports and exports, markets and coming together to push political platforms.
“This is significant because historically they’ve never worked together this closely,” Moon added. “They’re able to do this because we’ve created a safe environment that allows them to grow and prosper.”
The PRT has also constructed a number of cool storages in the province that have allowed the farmers in the area to preserve their produce. Instead of having to sell or consume their crops on the spot, they can now store them for the winter and sell them at a later date.
The women have been very receptive to the PRT’s assistance in the area of agriculture, as well. They have attended regular classes on raising chickens and livestock, food preservation and vegetable gardening.
“The women are a lot more responsive than the men, mainly because their pride is not wrapped up in their job,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Beth Ramsey, a forestry specialist for PRT Paktya. “They just want to feed their kids and become a productive member of the family.”
The increased involvement of women in the development of Afghanistan’s infrastructure is also proof of progress.
The implementation of the law for the elimination of violence against women played a key role in this progression. The law hasn’t been passed through parliament yet, but since it is considered a presidential decree it has been viewed as law for almost three years.
Recently a husband who murdered his wife and tried to pass it off as a suicide was given a public trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The legislature is being held accountable to prosecute forced marriages, child marriages and the practice of giving young girls away as repayment for land, said Hoffman.
Another category of civic development that has shown progress is that of medical care.
In 2001, there were no medical facilities in Paktya Province. Now there are 38 and counting. These include provincial and district hospitals, basic health clinics, comprehensive health clinics and even a prison clinic in the city of Gardez.
“They [Afghans] are building resiliency in their own communities,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Megan Dort, PRT Paktya’s physician assistant. “They now have community health workers who have basic first aid training and can give out medication in the more rural areas.”
The question that remains is will this progress be sustainable decades from now? The signs are overwhelmingly positive.The Afghans are eager for a chance to prove themselves capable of standing on their own two feet.
“The longer we hold them up on their training wheels, the harder it will be for them to learn,” Chong said. “They appreciate the PRT, but they look forward to having the opportunity to do everything themselves.”
Only time will tell, but the future looks promising for the people of Paktya Province.
“This is the most resilient community I’ve seen,” said Moon. “They’ve had 30 years of war that’s wiped out generations. For the first time, in pockets, I see the districts starting to stand up for themselves instead of letting someone come in and run them over.
All this can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of the civilians and service members of PRT Paktya.
“There are few jobs in the military where you can say that you helped another government stand on its feet,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas Kenney, the sergeant major for Paktya PRT. “What other job allows you to say that you directly contributed to the success of another country?”