Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Bridge At a Time

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Staff Sgt. Lenice Redmon interacts with Afghan children as part of the Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Cell

The sun is still low over the jagged Koh-I-Baba range when Chiclet-5 pulls out of the U.S. Army outpost above Bamiyan, in Afghanistan's central highlands. It is a small force: the six Chiclet team members, an Afghan translator, five regular Army troops along for backup and a two members of the local tribal militia. What they lack in numbers they more than make up for firepower: M-16s, an M-60 machinegun, 9 mm pistols, grenades, and radios that can call in air support in minutes.

Chiclets (the name comes from CHLCs, or "Coalition Humanitarian Liason Cells") are the hot item in America's anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan today. Self-described as the "Peace Corps with guns," they carry out high-impact aid missions the locals want and the U.N. and NGOs have somehow missed. Thirteen teams operate across the country right now, with more than 300 projects in the works ranging from building roads and bridges to supplying schools. Chiclet-5 is a typical team: five of its members are civilians, reservists out of the Knoxville-based 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, while the sixth is a regular Army communications specialist. The team's leader is Lt. Col. Roger Walker, a wry and thoughtful-looking food company executive from Valdosta, Georgia with a permanent case of sunburn.

First stop today is a village school in the hills above Bamiyan. The Taliban virtually destroyed the building during their occupation of the area; the local people, members of the Hazara tribe, were particular targets of persecution by the mostly-Pashtun Talibs. The Chiclets have already repaired and refurnished the school with chairs and desks, and now they have returned with nearly four hundred pounds of classroom supplies. When their military budget failed to cover the materials, team members asked for help from relatives back in the U.S. A Methodist Church in Texas raised the necessary money, bought the notebooks, paper, pens, pencils, and art supplies, and mailed them to Afghanistan via the A.P.O. Now four hundred children, many orphaned survivors of Taliban ethnic cleansing, come forward one by one to get their armloads of treasure. Most smile shyly; some snatch their supplies and run away, as if they are afraid they won't get to keep them. A regular Army soldier from upstate New York, Spec. Alison Kastner, tears up: "I'd just like to hold every one of them," she says. "So would I," Col. Walker replies gruffly.

Next stop: the building of a new bridge over the Fuladi River, at the east end of Bamiyan's ramshackle bazaar. When completed it will help revive Bamiyan's war-shattered economy, and Col. Walker is also using the project to provide employment for some of the dirt-poor landless refugees camped on a mesa north of town. But there is trouble: only a half-dozen men are working, thigh-deep in the cold water, shoveling out foundations for the concrete bridge abutments.

The local contractor tells Col. Walker that he offered jobs to the refugees on the mesa but had no takers. The Colonel's face tightens. "Well, if they don't want to work, I guess I can't make 'em," he scowls. "Okay, let's saddle up!" he yells to his team.

The Chiclets head straight for the refugee encampment on the mesa. These people are the subject of one of Col. Walker's personal crusades. They were relocated to this dusty, windswept plateau, two miles from the nearest water, by a European NGO which promised to build them housing here. Since then they have languished in patchwork tents, neglected and forgotten. If Walker hadn't come up with a two month supply of wheat this summer, they would have starved to death by now. The Chiclets are trying to arrange permanent housing for them before winter hits; just in case, Col. Walker is having stoves made out of scrap metal to heat the tents.

Now the Colonel is here to sort out why none of the camp's men are working on the bridge, earning money to help their families. He quickly learns that the contractor is hiring his own relatives and cronies for the job, and that when the men from the camp applied to work there they were turned away. He looks over the anxious pleading faces of the ragged famished men, and then he turns to his constant companion, Staff Sgt, Groce, who already has notepad and pencil ready.

"Make a note: first thing tomorrow morning we go back to the bridge and talk to that contractor." He turns to the Afghan translator: "Daoud, tell them if they go down to the bridge tomorrow afternoon there'll be work for them. And tell them we're going to be building more bridges, and they'll be the first to be hired on all of them." There is a loud chorus of thank-yous, blessings, but Col. Walker is already heading for his SUV. "Okay, let's saddle up!"

The afternoon is more of the same. A long bumpy drive up the Fuladi Valley to another damaged school. An impromptu visit to a potato farmer, who proudly tells the Colonel his harvest was the best in years. Three more bridges, all of them recently collapsed and needing urgent replacement. A sit-down meeting with an earnest young Hazara who wants to know if the Chiclets can help him start up a computer training center in Bamiyan. (Col. Walker tells him to submit a written request).

Even when the day is over, it's not over. Everyone in the little Bamiyan garrison takes their turn at cooking, housekeeping, sentry duty. Tonight it's the Colonel's turn to make dinner, and that means hamburgers, fries and salad for the troops and a guest list that includes two visiting journalists and a local warlord and his bodyguards. There are even centerpieces on the tables, with candleholders sculpted out of green peppers.

Six hours later, at two a.m., the Colonel, his Chiclets and the rest of the outpost personnel are out on the Bamiyan airstrip for a resupply by parachute from a C-130 with A-10s providing air cover. And three hours after the eight pallets of supplies have been picked up and the drop zone policed, the Colonel is up again, at his desk, planning the Chiclets' next day.

No wonder the Taliban and al-Qaeda hate the Chiclet teams. "Every one of us in Chiclet-5 has a price on his head," the Colonel says. "There are still al-Qaeda and Taliban out there. We see them shadowing us, looking for any weakness they might be able to exploit. We know they're going to come after us: it's not a matter of if, but when." He smiles. "But I'll tell you something, when they come they'd better be loaded for bear. Because we're good. Real good."

A young Hazara man in the bazaar offers his own verdict: "Do you know the American soldiers?" I tell him Yes, I do. "Could you please tell them, they should never leave. They should stay here forever."